Compared to what was available only ten short years ago, today’s range of online collaboration and communication options is astounding: broad social media, focused private communities, video conferencing, mobile texting—there has never been such a wide array of vehicles to expand how we communicate. Innovators are integrating virtual collaboration into advisory boards, market research, clinical trial execution, awareness campaigns—into the everyday fabric of their communications with colleagues, healthcare professionals, and patients.
The pace of technological change is accelerating rapidly. In many respects, today’s digital collaboration solutions have evolved into stronger, safer, and more effective channels than traditional channels. Solution providers and services agencies help marketers realize value across the entire drug lifecycle, providing more than technology. From accessing key customers in the marketplace, to enabling a more virtual field-force, to improving speaker and consultancy programs, to drug development and Phase II-IV clinical trials, real-world experience shows tangible benefits. The reason? Modern digital collaboration capabilities provide a true disruptive change in how, where, and when we access, communicate, and collaborate with key stakeholders.
THE TWO STYLES OF DIGITAL COLLABORATION
There are two important styles of digital collaboration, each with a variety of options. The best programs often combine both styles.
Asynchronous. The first style emphasizes asynchronous communication. Participants do not need to be online at the same time. These interactions employ online discussion boards of various types. They often include Q&A and workflow tracking. Think of an e-mail chain, add a host of capabilities to make participating easier, safer, and more vibrant, and then place it all within a secure, private site for a specific purpose. The communication that results from this is often referred to as an online community.
Being able to follow a discuss thread and respond on your own time and at your own pace has many advantages. Participants can eliminate the headache of scheduling cross–time zone calls and meetings. Busy professionals can engage when it is best for them—before morning rounds, after evening surgery, or after a day of meetings. Large groups can effectively collaborate without competing for limited airtime. Finally, participants can reflect and consider their answers and contributions—something often lost in live or video meetings.
Synchronicity. The second style of digital collaboration relies on synchronous communication tools. Everyone has to be online at the same time. Web conferences are a mainstay. Today’s collaboration platforms safely support one-onone conferences (think professional versions of Skype), one-to-many video presentations (a.k.a. webcasts), and many-to-many group video meetings (often used for advisory boards, steering committees, panels, or internal work).
The addition of video conferencing lets remote participants exchange non-verbal communication and quick “off the cuff” dialogue. Support for moderation, instant meeting setup, and integration with online community sites has moved this style of interaction into the mainstream.
ADDING SUPPORT FOR MEDICAL, LEGAL, AND REGULATORY REQUIREMENTS
If left uncontrolled, digital collaboration tools can open up a variety of compliance concerns. Imagine, for example, an online community consisting of physicians exchanging clinical and scientific information. What are the risks of off-label uses? How would one handle an adverse event report? Over the last few years, digital collaboration tools have added heavy support for online moderation; the ability to filter and intercept discussions that contain prohibited words or content; intelligent, realtime monitoring of content; deep privacy and access controls, and other functions essential to the life science industry workflow.
Both communication styles have gained tremendous traction in the life science industries over the past 24 months. Why? Because their new capabilities address a number of the industry’s top-of-mind challenges. Some of these challenges include:
Cost Efficiency. More than ever, pharmaceutical manufacturers must do more with less. As the age of blockbusters passes, pharmaceutical budgets are shrinking, and programs face stiffer challenges to prove their ROIs. Predicting any project’s revenue impact can be difficult. It’s always easier to find costs that might be avoided. Trading traditional live meetings for online venues is a case in point: one Top Five pharma company found they could maintain the quality of their advisory boards but cut as much as 30% from their costs by switching to a broad virtual program.
Operational Effectiveness. Many organizations are rethinking their internal processes for drug development, launch preparation, and overall lifecycle management. Drug delays and cost overruns often stem from nothing more complicated than poor internal communication. Here, digital collaboration technologies are combining automated workflows, convenient access, and task reminders to help disparate team members coordinate efficiently. In Phase II-IV clinical trials, for example, organizations are improving performance by connecting investigators, research coordinators, contract research organizations, and manufacturer stakeholders more tightly. They can design studies more efficiently, share best practices for patient recruitment and retention, bring new sites on board faster, and, overall, manage a faster, smoother-running trial.
Access to Key Opinion Leaders. Many manufacturers are shifting their product portfolios to a higher concentration of specialty treatments. In the days of the blockbuster, programs that pushed information to a large number of general providers were key to success. For specialty markets, however, this tactic is less effective. The clinical experience and influence of key opinion leaders weigh more heavily than they do in broader categories. These KOLs often work in academic medical centers that limit field-force access. Manufacturers therefore increase their online engagement via community solutions. These can never completely replace one-on-one live interaction, but they can be critical for establishing and fostering relationships with practice leaders.
Additionally, specialty physicians often work together as leaders of medical associations and non-profit organizations— contexts in which online community approaches allow for stronger, more ethical, and more valuable engagement.
Response to Sunshine Regulations. Though it doesn’t go into full effect until next year, the Sunshine Act is already having an effect on manufacturer-provider interactions. Physicians have become much more hesitant in speaking, consulting, or even attending meetings offered by manufacturers. Lunch, travel, and logistical expenditures are all subject to disclosure. If attending a lunch to learn about a new treatment makes the physician appear to be in industry’s pocket, many providers will look elsewhere to engage. Virtual venues—like online advisory board, online speaker, and third-party sponsored community solutions—let manufacturers and physicians engage together to advance medicine, while minimizing the negative appearances.
Competing Against Larger or More Established Brands. Both manufacturers directly, and medical associations indirectly, provide methods for engaging in controlled, online dialogue with healthcare professionals. These communities are critical to the awareness, market insight, and relationship-building needs of any manufacturer with a drug nearing (or just after) launch. Because these online communities are new and different, they provide a strong disruptive ability for manufacturers to create new relationships and market leadership. Online, smaller manufacturers can look like Top 20 companies, and competitive but lagging brands can re-energize their place in the broader discussion.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
All of the trends—burgeoning technological capability, regulatory pressure, and drug specialization, coupled with pervasive online technology in non-life science consumer markets and a growing focus on lowering costs and boosting operational efficiency—all point toward growing digital collaboration in a multi-channel approach. As with any disruptive technology, some brands will move quickly and gain strong benefits, some will make early mistakes, and others will wait and see what happens. The clearest error, though, is failing to know what your options are.
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