The Hype of Digitalization in Pharma Marketing

Having access to the fountain of knowledge residing in the cyberspace, fueled by word of mouth information and aided by social media, patients’ behavior is fast changing globally. Its degree may vary. But the change is real. The good news is – in a digital world of today, people are talking about ‘digitalization’ to rejuvenate per dollar productivity even in the pharma business, while navigating through a strong environmental headwind.

But, the bad news seems to be, that many pharma players, especially in India, can’t possibly quite fathom, just yet, the profound impact of the changing customer profile. With the hype of ‘digital marketing’ and associated cacophony, most of them seem to be focusing on automation of various processes with digital tools, rather than a customer-centric pan-organization digitalization of business. In this article, I shall dwell on the relevance of such intervention in the pharma marketing model, including the processes, before it’s too late for an organization.

The reality – profile of pharma consumers is changing:

It is well documented today that the profile of pharma consumers is changing. There are several studies in this area. For example, the McKenzie paper of November 2014, titled “A digital prescription for pharma companies,” penned some important observations in this regard, as follows:

  • Consumers in the healthcare sector are becoming more informed, empowered, and demanding.
  • The vast majority of connected patients using an array of digital tools, to take control of their health and the health care services they access and buy.
  • Over 70 percent of patients who are online in the United States use the Internet to find healthcare information, and around 40 percent of people who diagnosed their condition through online research had it confirmed by a physician.
  • Patients equip themselves with information about product safety, efficacy, cost comparison, quality indicators from websites and online communities.
  • The more healthcare data become digitally accessible, the more patients will use it to weigh—and potentially reject—expensive health care treatments, as is particularly true in the United States.
  • These patients are demanding more information, so they can apply the same cost-benefit analysis and research techniques they use to purchase cars or phones when they purchase health care.
  • They are also making more informed, rational choices about where they put their money.
  • If pharma companies do not join the digital dialogue and influence the conversation, they will lose an opportunity to shape it, and they may be put on the defensive trying to refute the statements made by those that do take part.

In this evolving scenario, the expectations of pharma customers even in India, are also changing. It may not be as fast as in the United States, but certainly can’t be ignored in any way, for long term business success. Thus, I reckon, it would be futile to keep the basic process of business as tradition-bound as it has always been, of course, with some interesting tweaking here or there.

When everybody talks about digital intervention, what it is really?

To effect this desired change, all concerned are now talking about ‘digitalization’. It has already become a buzz word and is often considered as a ‘magic wand’ by many enthusiasts. There is nothing wrong in this hype, provided this process is properly understood. I tried to explain it in my article, published in this Blog on January 2018. Are we missing wood for the tree? Let me start with the current ‘digitalization’ focus of pharma marketing in this area, particularly in India – as I see it.

Where’s the current focus on ‘digitalization’ in pharma marketing?

Generally, the pharma marketing focus broadly covers two different categories:

A. Push marketing 

B. Pull marketing

A. Push marketing: 

In my view, ‘push marketing’ involves targeting physicians through Medical Representatives and other means, including several contentious ones. These ensure that the doctors “push” the identified pharma brands of the company while writing prescriptions for patients. Some experts call it an ‘inside out’ and brand focused strategy of the industry players to drive sales.

Many companies are taking major digital steps to introduce automation in this area, which are not transformative, but incremental and aimed at improving productivity. Such drive encompasses many areas of a pharma organization, including the field staff related functions. For example, replacing usage of paper-based items, such as detailing folders or reporting material, with algorithm-based digital tablet devices. These reforms help answer customer questions promptly, besides almost real-time entry of accurate doctors’ call related data into a remote computer server for continuous analysis and feedback.

Automation of such types may free enough time of the field staff for greater customer contacts in different ways, but may not be considered as digitalization of the organization. Moreover, these are not transformative in nature either, as the overall process of doing business remains the same.

Nonetheless, process automation and its re-engineering add significant, but incremental value to the business, as the organization continues to maintain similar ‘inside-out’ focus on brands. The re-engineered processes also become faster and more accurate to help improve productivity. However, patients’ knowledge-base, needs, demands, values and aspiration keep changing fast, which just process automation can’t leverage to excel in business.

B. Pull marketing: 

Unlike ‘push marketing’, ‘pull marketing’ targeting pharma consumers who are increasingly becoming more informed and want to get involved in their treatment decision making process, including selection of a drug. The evolving trend suggests, to succeed in business, pharma players would require focusing more on patients, using various digital tools and platforms of engagement, in different ways.

To make this process meaningful, it is essential for a drug company to venture into mapping the patient’s journey from end-to-end for a specific disease or a set of diseases. This means capturing real-life data right from the time patients feel the need for a medical intervention, through the search for the right treatment, to effective disease management or cure, including follow-up, if any. Thus, mapping this arduous and complex odyssey would demand application of state-of-the-art digital tools.

Thereafter, equally sophisticated measures structured on digital platforms and formulated accordingly, require to be and implemented on the ground. It then becomes the ground-rock to transform the company’s focus – ‘through brands to patients’ to – ‘through patients to brands.’ Dovetailing this new marketing concept to a pan-organization initiative will call for new insight and wherewithal of the right kind.

When implemented by the right kind of people, this approach will encouragepatients to “pull” the demand of the selected brands, as they participate along with doctors in the drug selection part of the entire treatment process. The informed patients won’t hesitate posing questions to doctors – why ‘this’ drug is being prescribed and why not ‘that’ drug?’ The doctor would require responding with convincing answers in that situation. Some experts have termed this process as – an ‘outside in’ strategy.

Difference in impact – one ‘Incremental’, the other ‘transformative’:

It’s important to reiterate that the impact of digitalization for an ‘inside-out push strategy’, is generally incremental. Whereas, the same for ‘outside-in pull strategy’ is expected to be transformative in nature, not just in the business performance, but also the way pharma business is viewed and conducted as on date, especially in India.

Conclusion:

As I understand, process automation may be based on digital platforms and even with the application of Artificial Intelligence (AI) or robotics, the overall business process remains unchanged. It brings greater efficiency in the same business processes, improving employee productivity, and usually adds incremental success to brand performance.

Whereas, digitalization helps create a new way of achieving excellence – gaining a new insight for the business. This happens, first through generation, and then detail analysis of an enormous amount of relevant customer-centric data. Effective interpretation and use of the same, help transform the business – giving shape to new business processes for organizational distinction.

Simply speaking, automation improves the business efficiency with its key focus on ‘pushing brand prescription demand’, as much as possible. Whereas, digitalization aims at business transformation for a long-term organizational effectiveness. It creates a new purpose for business based on changing customer profile, across the organization. A sharp focus on delivering research-based and well-targeted customer values help ‘pulling brand prescription demand’, the decision of which is often jointly taken by the doctors and the patients or will happen that way even in India, sooner than later.

In this perspective, what we see in pharma marketing, generally in India, is automation of various types, of course, by using digital tools, platforms and even AI, in some cases. There isn’t anything wrong in that. But, digitization would call for much more. First, the core organizational focus to shift from being ‘brand-centric’ to ‘customer-centric’ for financial achievements, and then effectively delivering customer values through each ‘company-brand-customer interface’ and beyond that. This is essential for sustainable excellence of pharma players in the digital age.

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.

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