Digital strategies for pharma’s physician engagement

Pharmaceutical sales and marketing operations have been forced to follow a steep learning curve as they adjust to operating within the rapidly evolving and hugely changed landscape caused by the pandemic. Just as the wider healthcare system continues to acclimate to a new normal, the way pharma and physicians communicate is experiencing a technological revolution.

A recent pharmaphorum webinar on digital transformation, held in association with P360, explored how COVID has fast-tracked pharma’s long-held ambitions to make wider use of digital technology and streamline its communications with HCPs.

Grünenthal Group’s global head of commercial excellence Florent Edouard was one of three panellists at the online event and he explained how, prior to COVID, the relationship between pharma and its key stakeholder had become somewhat strained.

“Physicians didn’t want to see sales reps that were just delivering useless messages, stated Edouard. “HCPs had more administration and more things to do in their daily life as well. We saw the population of HCPs change and they were getting younger and wanted to have a better work-life balance.”

Physician access issues coupled with message delivery disconnects only compounded the problem. Edouard added that “at the end of the day, it was really complicated to get access and the content was not of high quality. When the access was actually made, the interaction was not so good. Overall, I would say the situation was not great.”

Inefficient communications pre-COVID

Double board-certified physician and panellist Dr. Mandira Mehra confirmed that, from a doctor’s standpoint, communication with pharma reps has become inefficient. Although educational materials provided by pharmaceutical reps are integral to prescriptions, she noted that the process of accessing or contacting pharmaceutical reps can be very frustrating.

“We have done multiple studies, and they all show physicians want engagement, and they want it at their own pace at their own time, and they want to initiate it.”

“I still have a stack of business cards with the information of 20-30 different pharmaceutical and medical device reps,” said Dr. Mehra. “I cannot think of any other industry that would do that – if I order food or call a cab, everything is streamlined and really done through the phone.”

Dr. Mehra’s experience highlights the complex duality of the medical field.

“So, even though in medicine, we are one of the most advanced industries out there, when it comes to our mode of communication with pharmaceutical reps, it’s a love-hate relationship,” added Dr. Mehra. “I love it because it is essential, but we have been unable, both on the clinical side, as well as the pharma side, to adapt to this technological revolution.”

However, change is in sight, according to Anupam Nandwana, CEO and founder of P360, who said that COVID-19 is fast-tracking changes that would previously have taken over a decade. And as physicians see processes digitalized, there will be no wholesale return to pre-COVID communication styles.

“It’s never going to be 100% face-to-face,” said Nandwana. “Physicians expect a seamless transition, so remote engagement and technology can provide a lot of promise,” said Nandwana. “Furthermore, the younger generation of physicians entering the workplace also have higher expectations of technology use. The question now is how technology for pharma and physicians to better communication can be perfected.”

A better user experience is key to wider adoption.

“How do we make it like Uber or Amazon? We need to join the rest of these industries that have been hyper-successful in using technology to their advantage, and I think it is within our grasp,” said Dr Mehra. “We just have to use the doctors, the pharmaceutical representatives, the technology representatives. We have to come together for a streamlined, efficient solution.”

‘I want it now’: the drive for more efficient digital solutions

According to Nandwana, the way to streamline communication is by creating a personalized experience for physicians, which requires a change from pharma’s traditional one-directional push of communications out to doctors.

“We have done multiple studies, and they all show physicians want engagement, and they want it at their own pace at their own time, and they want to initiate it,” noted Nandwana.

However, physicians’ time is precious and they do not want to disrupt their valuable clinical focus by interacting with pharma reps.

“As a doctor, we get this bad persona that we just want things and we want it now,” said Dr. Mehra. “Yes, I do want it and I do want it now, but not because I am impatient, or that physicians are impatient. It is that we want to maximize and optimize our time for the patient relationship.

“If I want to meet a pharmaceutical rep outside of work hours, that is what I will do. I do not want to foster that relationship during my clinic hours or during my procedure time.”

Technological integration

There are many efficiencies that technology can bring to the pharma-physician relationship, but – post-COVID – Dr. Mehra said there would need to be a balance with making medicine more human.

“At the end of the day, I think technological integration will be key and we want to find that sweet spot between the clinician’s time, optimizing patient care, and ultimately providing the best patient care,” she said.

For pharma companies, this will mean exploring platforms that can maximize these relationships acknowledged Edouard. Instead of pharma companies creating technology solutions they need to adapt and partner with different platforms.

“If you think about it, Uber does not own any cars, Airbnb doesn’t own any property. Amazon doesn’t own shops, they don’t produce stuff, but those platforms bring people together, and make them collaborate for the business benefits of both sides,” said Edouard.

Indeed, the ‘new normal’ could mean a more technologically advanced, more human experience for patients, said Dr. Mehra. Instead of medicine involving long-distance travel or waits to access care, telemedicine will help bring patient care right into people’s homes.

Although despite the innovation, the focus for physicians on optimizing patient care will remain the same agreed the panel.

“We’re still providing patients with these solutions, but now, we’ve become enlightened about it, meaning our perspective has now shifted,” reflected Dr. Mehra. “There’s a Zen expression that says, ‘Chop wood, carry water, then go get enlightened, and then come back and still chop wood, carry water.’ The first time I read this expression, I thought, ‘How foolish? Why would I go out and get enlightened, and then come back and do the same task?’

“Overall, we’re still providing our patients with a product, with a device, with a solution, with a therapy, but now, our perspective – the way we’ve become enlightened – is totally different in how we’re presenting it, in how we’re communicating.”

And as the challenges evolve in healthcare, technology can continue to provide solutions, concluded Nandwana.

“The technology is changing; engagements are changing but the innovation cycle will continue.”

About the panel

Anupam Nandwana, founder and CEO of P360Anupam Nandwana, CEO and Founder of P360, is an executive focused on digital transformation for the life sciences industry. His vision is to transform the way businesses operate by helping them increase speed to market while also improving patient care. P360 helps life sciences organizations work smarter and more efficiently with technologies that include compliant SMS text messaging with HCPs, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, the Internet of Things (IoT), sales enablement and more. Mr. Nandwana has been in the life sciences field since 1996 and has a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Mumbai. Follow him on Twitter or connect with him on LinkedIn.

modular contentFlorent Edouard is the global head of commercial excellence at Grünenthal Group, a pharmaceutical company headquartered in Germany and specialized in pain. Coming from AstraZeneca, where he led multiple commercial functions including four years in charge of AZ Respiratory and GI franchise in Japan, he joined Grünenthal in 2017 to drive the company’s commercial transformation, from Launch Excellence to Field team impact, through Analytics uplift as well as platform and capability build across affiliates.

Dr. Mandira Mehra, physician and journalistDr Mandira N. Mehra is a double board-certified physician. Aside from being a medical doctor, she is a published medical journalist and television medical correspondent. She is routinely seen on CBS, FOX 5, NBC, ABC and MHz Networks. She is the founder and host of the podcast and television segment “Human Condition MD”.  She graduated from George Washington University School Of Medicine in 2010.

Catherine LongworthCatherine Longworth, web editor, pharmaphorum, [moderator] Catherine Longworth is the web editor for pharmaphorum media, leading healthcare features coverage. Based in London, Catherine has international experience and reported from across Europe, the U.S and Israel. She is regularly invited to speak and moderate at industry events. Catherine previously worked for Informa’s Pharma Intelligence division where she covered the medical technology and digital health sectors. She has a degree in Biomedical Science from St. George’s University of London, and a diploma in journalism from Britain’s National Council for the Training of Journalists.