Even after six months of COVID-19 pandemic, the omnipresent chaos, general unease and apprehensions about a yet unpredictable future continues in all countries, including India. In absence of vaccines and proven medicines to address the disease, wearing face mask, maintaining social distancing and frequent hand sanitizing, remain the primary measures for all to combat this unprecedented health crisis.
The rapid spread of the lethal Coronavirus has not only impacted lives and livelihoods, besides changing the health care ecosystem – with a silver lining, though. The pandemic has instilled a sense of urgency – an accelerated speed – in the entire value chain of the health care systems, including the pharma industry.
To contain the rapid spread of the disease – many physicians, Governments and even patients themselves, are being encouraged to leverage technological platforms, for various non-Covid related medical needs. Realizing that there no other working alternatives in this situation, even most skeptical doctors and patients are now resorting to video consultations.
Consequently, ‘Telemedicine’, in different forms, has started growing in leaps and bounce. Its spin-off benefits favor the patients – better care at lower costs, sans any further strain on the existing health care systems. Along with many others, the Bloomberg article of April 10, 2020 – ‘Coronavirus Should Finally Smash the Barriers to Telemedicine,’ also expects it to grow, not just during the pandemic, but much beyond.
Echoing the World Health Organization (W.H.O) on the need to promote telemedicine in this health crisis, Niti Aayog of India also acknowledged, ‘‘Telemedicine: A Blessing In Disguise In Time Of COVID-19.’ It further added, ‘With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, telemedicine has finally gained momentum. Telemedicine providers reported an overnight increase in demand, acceptance among doctors, paramedics, and consumers.’
As patient-doctor interactions are now expanding – from personal visits to physicians to remote telehealth, is there a need for recomposing notes of the pharma marketing playbook - to excel in the new world order? This article would focus on this specific area of leveraging ‘The Break in The Clouds’.
Telemedicine and its key primary driver:
‘Telemedicine’– often called telehealth or e-medicine, in simple term, involves the remote delivery of health care services, when both doctors and patients are not physically present at the same place. It includes, patient examination, doctor consultations, diagnosis, treatment and remote monitoring, over the technology enabled modern communication infrastructure.
Although, telemedicine is not a new concept, it was not very popular for various reasons, till Covid pandemic offered no other viable alternatives to non-Covid patients. The article – ‘COVID-19: The rise and rise of telemedicine,’ published in the MobileHealthNews on May 27, 2020, also vindicates this point. It reconfirmed: ‘Telemedicine has experienced a huge surge in adoption over the past few months, during the coronavirus pandemic.’
Even Frost & Sullivan’s recent analysis, ‘Telehealth – A Technology-Based Weapon in the War Against the Coronavirus’ of May 13, 2020, found the demand for telehealth technology rising dramatically, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt the delivery of healthcare worldwide. Thus, ongoing stringent requirements of wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing to contain the virus spread, will continue to drive the growth telemedicine as the preferred way of accessing healthcare.
Indian perspective of increased online access to health care:
Practo’s Insight Report of June 20, 2020, titled, ‘How India accessed health care in the last three months,’ has revealed some interesting India-specific data in this area. This study was based on transactions of 500 million Indians accessing health care online, during March 1, 2020 to May 31, 2020 period. It found, while COVID-19 continued to remain India’s topmost concern, ‘telemedicine has helped doctors – patients stay connected, as people practiced physical/social distancing.’ This resulted into a ‘500 percent increase in online doctor consultations,’ in that time frame. Other important findings of this report include:
- 80 percent of all telemedicine users experienced it for the first time.
- 44 percent of the teleconsultations were from non-metro cities.
- In-person doctor visits dropped by 67 percent.
- Indians consulted their doctors 2 times per month, using telemedicine.
The surge in teleconsultations in India, reportedly, follows the long-pending telemedicine guidelines which were finally issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, in collaboration with NITI Aayog and Board of Governors, Medical Council of India (MCI).
Could ‘Telehealth’ be a game changer even beyond Covid time?
Many experts in this area believe so. For example, the article – ‘Telehealth could be a game-changer in the fight against COVID-19. Here’s why,’ published the World Economic Forum on May 01, 2020, makes some important observations. It suggests: ‘Beyond the pandemic, governments, insurers and healthcare providers need to work together to ensure that the innovation sparked by this crisis endures and accelerates. Post-crisis, telehealth can still help alleviate the pressures posed by healthcare resource shortages, the growing elderly population and issues with healthcare accessibility.’
The article, published in the Invest in India website of the Government of India, on April 10, 2020, emphasized the relevance and benefits of ‘Telemedicine’ in India – even after Covid Time. Conceding, in-person health care delivery in the country is challenging, given the large geographical distances and limited resources, it enumerated all-time relevance and the key advantages of ‘Telemedicine,’ as hereunder:
- Saves cost, effort and other related inconveniences, especially of rural patients, as they need not travel long distances for obtaining consultation and treatment, also limiting burden on the secondary hospitals.
- Ensures higher likelihood of maintenance of records and documentation, minimizing the possibility of missing out advice from the doctor and other health care staff.
- Provides safety to patients and health workers’, especially where there is a risk of contagious infections.
- The doctor has an exact document of the advice provided via tele-consultation. Written documentation increases the legal protection of both the parties.
- Enables the availability of vital parameters of the patient available to the physician with the help of medical devices such as blood pressure, blood glucose, managing.
- Provides equal access to quality care to all, minimizing inequity and barriers to access.
The official guidelines for telemedicine practices in the country are aimed at allowing registered medical practitioners to providing remote consultation. Under this backdrop, Telemedicine is expected to remain in a growth trajectory, even in India. Accordingly, there arises a need for recomposing notes of the pharma marketing playbook - to excel in the new world order.
Increasing telehealth preference prompts marketing strategy retooling:
As I wrote on July 10, 2020, pharma leaders need to leverage the art of turning challenges into opportunities, now – especially when telehealth is at the threshold of playing a pivotal role in the health care delivery systems. In this scenario, traditional pharma brand-demand generation strategies are unlikely to deliver expected business results, anymore. Pharma players would need to work out fresh and effective marketing models, in-sync with patients changing health care related needs. Conceiving, strategizing, and delivering changing patient-value based content, effectively, using modern omnichannel platforms, would be the new ballgame.
‘Telehealth is more than a channel for delivering care’:
As the ZS Insights article – ‘While telehealth continues to evolve, pharma needs to keep an eye on the future,’ published on August 03, 2020 reiterated: ‘Telehealth is more than a channel for delivering care, it reflects a fundamental shift in how brands reach patients and physicians.’ Following are some key points worth noting:
- Until now, in-person delivery of care has anchored brand marketing in the sales territory-based geographic perspective. Whereas, telehealth platforms are free of sales territory-based geographic distinction.
- Physicians now provide telehealth services to patients in two ways, having different implications for pharma players:
- Vertically integrated virtual practices, such as, Practo, Lybrate and others in India.
- Brick-and-mortar offices, where physicians provide telehealth visits through FaceTime, WhatsApp, Zoom and other teleconference platforms.
It is envisaged, alongside patients avoiding the risk of contracting Covid, tangible benefits of lower treatment cost and escaping long waiting time to meet the doctors physically, will encourage people switching to Telemedicine, for an indefinite period.
Collaborative, not standalone pharma marketing may not work better:
In the era of telehealth or Telemedicine, the common ground where patients, doctors and drug companies can meet, would be the telemedicine platforms. These may well be some popular telemedicine apps for e-consultation, such as, Meddo, Practo, mFine and others in India. Besides, there lies an opportunity for pharma companies also to develop custom-made ones, for installation by doctors.
These platforms can be effectively leveraged with collaborative approaches – for content delivery to physicians, patients and other stakeholders, at the appropriate time and places. There are various innovative ways to prepare a grand strategy for this purpose – ‘tailor-made’ for each company. And astute pharma marketers should play the role of ‘master tailors.’
Meanwhile, as on October 11, 2020 morning, India recorded a staggering figure of 7,051,413 of Coronavirus cases with 108,371 deaths. The daily number of new cases appeared to have slowed down during the last week.
Nonetheless, the unprecedented and savage onslaught of the new Coronavirus has unsettled the pharma industry, as it disrupted the old normal of the world. At the same time, many people have also demonstrated high resilience, grit and innovative mind to keep moving, in a relatively orderly manner – amid an omnipresent chaos, as it were. In the health care space, the need for responding to non-Covid related health emergencies, pushed people to experiment with not much used before – telehealth or Telemedicine.
It worked and continues receiving support from all concerned. Its other major benefits also surfaced – as a breath of fresh air. It’s unlikely that people will let it go, in the foreseeable future, which has a great implication to pharma industry. With more patients and doctors increasingly preferringTelemedicine, in various ways, pharma marketing needs retooling its strategy kit – by expanding into collaborative approaches with Telemedicine providers.
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.