COVID-19 has changed what it means to be a patient. With such a highly contagious disease, everyone is forced to change their lifestyles and socially distance from others to avoid the virus. Unsurprisingly, the average consumer is ready for it to end. In a report from CMI/Compas, “What Consumers Want and Need from Pharma—Engagement, Preference, & Need in the Wake of COVID-19 Recovery,” 68% of 800 U.S. consumers can’t wait for social isolation/social distancing to be completely over.

That is especially true of the Silent Generation with 79% itching for restrictions to lift and only 36% planning to remain isolated once they are. Members of other generations are more cautious with over half of Boomers (59%), Gen Xers (56%), Millennials (56%), and Gen Zers (54%), intending to remain isolated even after restrictions are relaxed. When it comes to healthcare, all generations are mostly comfortable seeing a doctor in-person today if needed, but half of Millennials are willing to delay treatment if possible—only 35% of Boomers and 32% of the Silent Generation feel the same.

Even though people can’t wait for all of this to end, respondents don’t agree on when we might see life as we know it again. In fact, 18% don’t think we will ever “return to normal,” and the largest plurality of only 24% said it will take two to three months once restrictions are relaxed.

What does all of this mean for the patient experience moving forward?

Is Telehealth the Solution?

During the peak of the pandemic in March we saw a 400% increase in the number of telehealth visits, according to the IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science. Many believe telehealth is now and will continue to be an essential part of the overall patient experience.

“It will no longer be ‘live visit’ vs. ‘telehealth appointment’ but an integration that will forever change the healthcare workflow,” says Susan Manber, Chief Patient Officer, Publicis Health. “Telemedicine will be used for triage, and in some cases diagnosis. It’s important for pharma companies to work with payers to ensure telehealth coverage and work with patients to help them prepare and get the most out of a telehealth visit.”

However, not all patients seem thrilled with this change. In the CMI/Compas report, only 35% of respondents have used telemedicine, and of those who haven’t only 31% said they intend to in the future. But research from Health Union, based on a series of COVID-specific surveys with people living with chronic health conditions, shows opinions may change once patients use it.

“Our research suggested that once people experienced telehealth—potentially overcoming technology issues and realizing the benefits—they were more comfortable at the prospect of using it for routine care in the future,” explains Lauren Lawhon, Chief Operations Officer, Health Union. “More than a quarter of respondents said they want to use telehealth even after the pandemic. But being willing to even try telehealth might require additional guidance and encouragement from HCPs. Specifically, respondents who said they weren’t using telehealth reported having less overall communication with their HCPs during the pandemic.”

Even if virtual health options do become more prominent, in-person doctor visits will likely remain the primary way most patients engage with their physicians.

“Our internal and third-party data shows that while telemedicine represents an important channel within the Moments of Care™ along the patient journey, the trends also show that it’s used for specific clinical needs, is more highly used in specific specialties, and is not serving to replace the physical point of care but, instead, complement it,” says Greg Reilly, EVP Head of Customer Experience, Outcome Health. “To that end, patients with the highest care needs (those with chronic conditions or acute and emergent care needs) are still seeing their HCPs in-person.”

A Digital Revolution

No matter what, digital solutions are likely to play a more important role in the patient experience post COVID.

“As consumerism continues to reshape the healthcare landscape, patients today expect to access and discuss that information on a convenient, mobile platform,” says David Linetsky, SVP, Life Sciences, Phreesia. “Many healthcare organizations have implemented digital intake platforms that provide a more customized and engaging patient experience. Pharma companies can leverage these platforms prior to patients’ in-office or telehealth appointments to deliver targeted content that addresses patients’ specific health needs, such as information about new therapies or support programs for medication adherence.”

During the pandemic, we have also seen higher adoption of remote patient monitoring, mail-order delivery, and at-home patient support services, which has corresponded with an increase of apps that may soon overwhelm patients. Michael Cole, Chief Strategy Officer, Wunderman Thompson Health, suggests looking toward the financial industry to solve this issue.

“Once that industry hit a point of critical mass where people navigated their entire financial lives online or through apps a new need arose for aggregation services,” Cole explains. “I would posit that with more patients adopting more disparate and often disconnected remote platforms, the next wave of innovation for life sciences companies will be helping patients connect those services and manage a holistic view of their health routines.”

That means the ability of patients to adopt digital solutions should become a key focus for pharma, especially when it comes to clinical trials.

“Traditional clinical trial models are being reimagined and rebuilt in order to support virtual study participation,” says Nariman Nasser, VP of Site Engagement, Continuum Clinical. “Patients will likely be required to track their personal study data using apps, devices, and other digital technologies, which will require sponsors to evaluate potential participants’ technical ability as part of clinical trial participation criteria. This could disproportionally impact elderly patients and those who lack access to reliable internet. Sponsors must also reexamine patient study communications and consider new patient-friendly materials, such as study introduction/welcome videos and potential how-to or troubleshooting video walkthroughs.”

Through it all, pharma now has a chance to change how patients view the industry.

“The importance of pharma is felt now more than ever, and the pandemic has presented an opportunity for the industry to improve its reputation,” says Gabriela Ramos, Associate Director, Media, CMI/Compas. “In this new reality, pharma companies need to consider how they can make treatment experiences more seamless—not just for coronavirus but for all health. Treatment options need to evolve to become more contactless and convenient such as partnering with nurse practitioners to deliver treatments to patients’ homes. Right now, the industry has an unprecedented opening to drive trust with the public.”

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