Life sciences industry engagement with healthcare providers (HCPs) was slowly changing before the pandemic, but COVID-19 forced those changes into another gear. Among the most obvious differences: sales rep access. During COVID, HCPs who saw a rep more than once a month decreased from 47% to 25%, according to the November 2020 ZS’ Impact Insights’ report, “U.S. Voice of the Customer: What Pharma Needs to Know Eight Months into a Pandemic.”

The good news: reps aren’t completely restricted. In fact, in that same report, HCPs’ affinity to see sales reps increased from 55% in March to 84% in October—but now they prefer a hybrid engagement model.

“This new dynamic environment has created a need for digitally enabled sales reps who can deliver a diverse range of activities including traditional detailing, eDetailing, and customer service both face-to-face and remotely,” says Kamini Anbil, Strategy Insights and Planning Associate, ZS. “The primary goal of a digitally enabled sales rep is to have more positive, regular, meaningful, and time appropriate engagements with HCPs.”

Reps are actually getting a lot more time with HCPs as a result. According to a January 2021 Veeva Pulse Data report, the average length of virtual meetings was 19 minutes—compared to the typical three-minute face-to-face meeting.

“As remote detailing time has extended, it’s important to provide the field force team training and education on navigating longer interactions with HCPs,” explains Paulomi Patel, Principal, Omnichannel Promotion Analytics, Analytical Wizards. “Specifically, with new engagement strategies to generate profound and meaningful interaction that will help drive growth for new launches and mature products.”

But just because these virtual or hybrid meetings are likely to remain post-pandemic, that doesn’t mean face-to-face meetings will completely fall by the wayside.

“The lower frequency of face-to-face HCP engagement has resulted in in-office HCP-rep interactions that are more impactful than ever,” says Ty Harkness, Manager, Customer Engagement, ZoomRx. “New distinctions have been made between high-value interactions that require in-person engagement and lower-value touchpoints that can be handled remotely. When executed appropriately, the result is a dynamic promotional mix that is more attuned to customer needs and more effective in influencing customer behavior.”

Upping Your Digital Game

What can marketers do to cut through the digital fatigue of HCPs who are sitting in front of their monitor attending telehealth appointments and web meetings for hours each day?

“It comes down to convenience, flexibility, and personalization,” explains Natalie Yeadon, Co-Founder and CEO, Impetus Digital. “For example, pharma companies may want to consider a combination of real-time virtual educational events, asynchronous activities that can be completed at one’s convenience, online community boards, and secure ‘digital offices’ for MSLs or sales reps to interact with individuals or small groups of HCPs at any time. Ideally, all of the above should be on the same virtual platform.”

Meanwhile, Mike Thomson, Copy Supervisor, Elevate Healthcare, suggests making your communication with HCPs compelling and memorable.

“Embracing new technologies makes it possible to create a life-sized interactive environment,” Thomson says. “By utilizing WebVR, immersion occurs directly in the HCP’s browser. MOA demos transform into breathtaking innovation showcases. Live webinars can again feel like true theater experiences. KOLs from around the world can lead hands-on walkthroughs, allowing HCPs to participate and practice new techniques.”

Another key is to reach HCPs right within their workflows, including electronic medical records (EMRs) and telehealth platforms.

“Leveraging in-app patient data, such as confirmed diagnosis codes, insurance coverage, and previously prescribed drugs can allow marketers to reach HCPs with messaging perceived as relevant and helpful, rather than intrusive and self-serving,” says Brenda Landry, VP, Client Services, Convergence Point Media, LLC. “For example, cost-saving messaging in EMRs and telehealth platforms are crucial to mitigate or eliminate concerns about coverage and access if served to HCPs seeing an eligible patient in real time at the point of care.”

And as more marketers turn to non-personal promotion, HCPs are becoming oversaturated with digital marketing—requiring the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence for a more personal touch.

“An intelligence solution can carefully assess channel preference, communication style, timing, and message resonance to orchestrate the next-best experience for each HCP,” says Alan Kalton, General Manager, EMEA, Aktana. “Moving forward, establishing AI-enabled optimization processes that not only learn from previous interactions but also continually gather and synthesize external data about an HCP’s unique context will be critical for effective engagement.”

What’s Changing for HCPs?

Any engagement strategy must also factor in how COVID-19 is changing the practice of medicine. For instance, the pandemic is accelerating the vertical integration of the health system with more physicians moving away from independent practice.

“This shift has illuminated local community differences in care and fueled the adoption of telehealth and alternate care models,” says Will Reese, President, Benchworks. “Life sciences companies must adopt a total practice/system approach that aligns with these shifts. Patient education and support materials should account for the diversity of HCPs’ patient populations and be designed to work in this new hybrid care climate.”

But it will also be crucial to keep an eye on how vaccination efforts impact the healthcare system moving forward.

“As we enter into the next chapter of this challenging pandemic, one thing is for certain: MORE,” says Dave Paragamian, President, Health Monitor Network. “Meaning, more patients returning to more HCPs’ offices seeking more information. So, anything that makes the physician’s interaction with his/her patients faster, clearer, and helps to drive better dialogue and better patient-physician concordance with therapy is of value. That’s why we see an increase in demand for in-office medical education platforms and materials bringing patient education to the point of care in the exam room.”

Even as we start to see a light at the end of the tunnel from this pandemic, marketers and sales representatives must consider the impact it has had on HCPs.

“We cannot anticipate HCP needs of the future without acknowledging the emotional trauma they have endured in the still-too-recent past,” explains Nadine Leonard, President, Heartbeat. “COVID-19 has exacerbated the pressures on this already emotionally draining profession, which makes now, more than ever, the time to forge an emotional connection with these providers. Acknowledge their journey, empathize with their experiences, and then find meaningful ways to support providers as actual people, instead of just prescription writers. By proving yourself as this kind of ally, you will open the door to discuss actionable solutions around patient care and product messaging.”

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