As marketers, we want to connect with our customers using new solutions, new channels, and new—primarily digital—resources. We are designing digital ads, digital support programs, and branded digital apps. We’re doing digital, so we think we know digital.

But do we? Are all of these offerings really connecting with the customers we’re trying to reach? Are these new and allegedly innovative solutions really working?

I’ve learned a hard truth. These “digital innovations” haven’t been making as strong a connection as we hoped. For better or worse, doctors spend at least half of their working lives inside their EHRs—including crucial moments making decisions about whether or not to prescribe a product. They are relying on information in those EHR systems much more than on the information manufacturers are serving through other digital channels.

It’s Time to Focus on the Essentials

How well do you understand the digital that really matters? Chances are, you still have a limited view into what your customers are actually seeing and doing during the hours they are eyes-to-screen with their EHR, and because of this, you and your teams may be launching “digital” without a strong foundation to support it.

The fact is that the most important digital tools in healthcare often are only marginally understood by even the best pharma marketers. This can result in one of two scenarios: Some teams reason that because they can’t have direct influence on the content of an EHR, they shouldn’t worry about it; others have yet to appreciate the hard reality that a great deal of EHR functionality remains outside their sphere of influence.

Whichever of these scenarios you’re in, it’s likely to cost you. Even though you generally can’t alter the information inside an EHR to suit your marketing desires, there’s still much that can and should be done to understand what prescribers will find there, and the right preparation can have a major impact on the way prescribers interact with information about your product. In fact, you might want to start thinking of the EHR, and Health IT in general, as the essential digital for your brand, with all your other digital programs serving as the supporting digital. If you don’t take steps to prepare for how you’re viewed in the essential digital, the value of your work on those supporting offerings—which I agree are helpful and important—is going to be seriously diminished.

I’ve been in the trenches inside pharma, helping to dig and pour the foundations for both of these digital approaches with our clients. Here are three things I’ve learned along the way:

Structured Data is King

Most prescriptions aren’t handwritten, and there aren’t too many prescribers looking at hard-copy drug reference guides these days. If you are planning a product launch, an outcomes-based contract, or want your product easily prescribed by an EHR user, you need to understand structured data. The EHR, at its core, is a giant database of clinical and demographic information, and its power comes in its ability to manage, filter, share, and store that information. If the knowledge you want to share about your product (your Prescribing Information, for example) doesn’t fit easily into the structured fields of an EHR, it loses value, and may even confuse the prescriber. Not good for your customers or your bottom line.

Preparation for the essential digital requires a plan for seemingly arcane things such as compendia submissions, drug categorization, and digital clinical workflows—because that information is what’s actually going to be used to prescribe your product and to evaluate it against its competitors.

Train your Teams with Basic Knowledge

Your sales, marketing, and support teams likely don’t know the intricacies of how a product actually “gets into” the EHR, or how much time it takes for that data exchange to happen safely and reliably. Arming your teams with realistic, actionable knowledge about what to expect from health IT, and when to expect it, not only allows them to identify opportunities, but also prevents them from engaging in activities that may seem helpful while actually creating larger problems. Thinking your new product can be “manually added” into the EHR by most end-users is a common example of this, yet brands continue to try it because they just don’t understand the issues and risks. If the brand is lucky, these additions can be removed; but often, the brand doesn’t even know there’s a problem, and they continue to lose prescriptions to an easier-to-prescribe alternative. Basic knowledge can prevent countless frustrating hours trying to fix preventable problems.

Have a System to Separate Signal from Noise

Technology is a great scapegoat. I blame my alarm clock when I oversleep; I blame the oven when I burn dinner. It’s also easy to blame the EHR when something isn’t working as we think (or hope) it should. But the truth is, it’s rarely “the EHR’s fault,” and most situations in which a salesperson is told, “The EHR won’t let me…” are actually examples of the EHR being used to carry out an institutional policy. By engaging in the right conversations, a salesperson could potentially affect a policy change in your favor, but that won’t happen as long as the EHR remains an excuse.

If you don’t have a way of systematically investigating reports of “EHR issues,” you risk wasting time in fruitless battles while overlooking the real issues impacting your brand’s bottom line. Implementing a centralized, knowledgeable resource for your teams allows for the weeding out of policy and data issues from technology problems, while also helping you mitigate the negative impacts of each.

In future columns, I’ll discuss other ways you can optimize the essential digital to create a strong foundation for your brand.

  • Jacquelyn Crane

    Jacquelyn is a registered nurse and healthcare business architect with a passion for optimizing healthcare workflows and information sharing. She’s also the President of Corvus Solutions, a Think Patients company focused on helping the life science industry deliver practical innovation. 

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