Just as newer reports come almost every day on safety, efficacy, dosage interval or span of immunity of Covid vaccines, similar reports are also reaching us about the possible future shape of pharma sales and marketing operations. Some hardcore optimists, apparently more from India, still believe that current changes in pharma customer behavior are mostly transient. All business processes will eventually fall in their traditional grooves, as the Covid menace disappears from our lives soon.
No doubt, several studies are also bringing out a number of respondent doctors’ preferences on reverting to F2F engagements, programs and events. Nonetheless, most other experts, including several large global pharma majors, believe that the future shape of business operations won’t be quite the same as the past. There are better ways to be more effective, leveraging the changing environment. Accordingly, they have initiated actions, reimagining the pathway of new operational frontiers. In this article, I shall explore the evolving pragmatic outlook in just two of these action areas:
- The new and unique role of medical representatives
- Digital health care solutions as a new growth opportunity
New role of medical representatives:
A recent survey published by Reuters Events Pharma on December 18, 2020, revealed that 30% of the respondents still expect that Medical Reps’ (MR) face-to-face access to HCPs would return to the status quo ante of Covid pandemic restrictions. However, a majority of 70% felt that the old normal is unlikely return as such. The study also brought out that the size and disposition of sales teams are under review by many of pharma players and smaller field forces look likely, as the industry moves on.
My personal experience with the Indian Pharma Industry sources suggests, when a Covid pandemic wave starts finding its peak, the feeling of the above 70% prevails. However, when the same wave climbs down from its peak to a transient trough, a large number of Indian companies and experts tend to feel somewhat akin to what the above 30% expressed in the Reuters Events Pharma survey. The process gets repeated with the emergence of the next wave.
Alongside, as the above survey also finds out, most physicians are no longer expecting – brand-driven high sales pitches, during any MR-Doctor interaction or the engagement process. Instead, they are increasingly looking for insights – in an integrated, personalized and value-driven interactions with the Reps.
Considering this as a trend of over last one year or so, it is likely that MR-doctor interactions will now need to be on digital and omnichannel platforms to deliver a personalized and value driven an experience to the customers. In this environment, the field force may be smaller in size than what it used to be in early 2020 but will have a unique new role to play. This process will come with a new challenge, especially to those inbred companies, who are still undecided about the road ahead for business excellence, in the new normal.
Three new pharma leadership challenges:
Apparently, a large number of domestic drug companies, irrespective of size and scale of operations still feel comfortable to be in the old comfort zone that had propelled the business in a growth trajectory. Most pharma sales and marketing staff members, at several levels, have grown within the industry, consistently delivering high performance.
This situation by itself, as the above research paper revealed, poses three fresh challenges for many companies to make their field-staff ready to play a unique and fresh role in e-marketing. Thus, the three new knots to untie in the virtual world, are the following:
- Currently, most MRs are not proficient in selling in virtually,
- They are being led by people who have also never sold virtually,
- They are being trained by people who also have never sold virtually.
MRs will continue to have a role to play even in the digital world:
To overcome the above challenges, today’s reality prompts new L&D needs of pharma’s new e-environment. And from this perspective, I think, they would need professional domain experts’ hand-holding, at least, in the transition phase of digital marketing. Some companies have initiated this process for greater sales force effectiveness, since 2019. A recent example in this area may be quoted from a report on October 01, 2019.
The article highlights, ‘AstraZeneca sales reps have some new help in the coaching department, resulting improved interactions and better development of sales reps’ strengths. While leaders still manage reps, artificial intelligence—in the form of data generated from thousands of field-coaching forms—now adds machine-learned analysis and advice.’
Thus, it is worth noting that MRs will continue to play an important role, alongside remote digital marketing using omnichannel or multi-channel engagement platforms. The same also came out clearly in the latest study from healthcare consultancy ZoomRx, reported on April 08, 2021, where its findings raised an important question - ‘Did pharma overshoot digital sales rep calls?’ This dilemma was prompted by the study charts reflecting a decline in its effectiveness, during this specific survey period.
Thus, in my opinion, a hybrid business model for better performance will be more effective in the new normal. However, ascertaining the right mix of digital and MR’s in-person interactions, may pose a challenge for many pharma marketers.
Entry into digital health solutions – an opportunity for growth:
Before Covid pandemic, digital therapeutics or digital health solutions were not an unknown area for several pharma companies, as a growth booster in the modern world. But, it wasn’t explored so intensively as it is being discussed today, for the same. A recent paper titled, ‘Digital health during COVID-19: lessons from operationalizing new models of care in ophthalmology,’ published in The Lancet on February 01, 2021, vindicates this point.
The paper emphasized, due to Covid pandemic ‘the traditional face-to-face patient–physician care model has had to be re-examined in many countries, with digital technology and new models of care being rapidly deployed to meet the various challenges of the pandemic.’ It further highlighted, these new models incorporate digital health solutions such as telehealth, AI based decision support for triaging, besides clinical care, and home monitoring.
Global pharma majors, such as Novartis, have publicly acknowledged on January 21, 202 that ‘digital innovation looks set to dominate the 2021 healthcare agenda.’ The statement said, COVID-19 was a catalyst for change in healthcare during 2020 and an accelerator for digital health. Similarly, 2021 looks set to continue the revolution – exploiting ‘an explosion of interest, traction and scale’ in the potential for digital solutions. These would not only support remote working, but also keep the very fabric of business, healthcare, education, and essential services in operation.
Other important and recent examples of digital health care solutions:
Witnessing the COVID-19 pandemic pushing more people toward virtual doctor visits over the last one year, AstraZeneca, as reported on April 06, 2021, is preparing for it in the new normal, through a novel project with Massachusetts General Hospital. The Company is now in the process of establishing and validating its ‘recently launched digital health platform, designed to help patients with chronic illnesses manage their conditions without stepping foot into the academic medical center’s clinic.’
Similarly, several other companies, are also investing to be early entrants with user friendly state of the art technology in this space. Interestingly, many of these ventures were reported during March and April 2021.
Arthur Miller’s play ‘Death of a Salesman,’ broadly addressed the loss of identity and a man’s inability to accept change within himself and society. Although, the book depicts a larger philosophical perspective of life – many pointed out similar issues in the drug industry perspective, as well.
Nonetheless, many studies have established, pharma MRs have been effectively delivering, since long, the endpoint deliverables, as expected of them – sales. However, the question that still haunts many – can this core process be re-imagined for greater efficiency and effectiveness at a lesser cost, harnessing modern technology. An article, published in the Pharmaphorum on March 11, 2011, has also suggested – ‘in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an even greater need to re-examine the rep’s role. How can a field force evolve to deal with current challenges and be future-fit for the way we will be working in the post-pandemic world?’
There is no confusion today that MRs’ will have a key role to play in pharma’s digital endeavor. However, the key purpose of having them has evolved during the pandemic. Such as, from being an efficient way to achieve personal communication objectives – to be an orchestrator for physicians to navigate the difficult landscape, providing them a differentiated service. For this purpose, I reckon, a hybrid business model for better performance, will be more effective in the new normal, while quickly adapting to digital transformation. However, arriving at the right mix of digital and MR’s in-person interactions, may pose a challenge for many pharma marketers, as it will be a company-specific need.
Similarly, the criticality of leveraging opportunities to provide remote delivery of digital health care solutions to patients, has also come onto the radar of many pharma players, during this difficult time. Several players have already added this area as a lucrative business expansion platform – many more are expected to follow. Thus, in my view, the fast-evolving data-based trends are now giving a pragmatic shape to future pharma operations – especially on the new and unique role of medical representatives and the relevance of digital health care solutions, as a growth opportunity.
By: Tapan J. Ray
Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.