Our thinking

Building Resilience for the “Next Normal”

The immediate response to the global COVID-19 pandemic was to quarantine the sick, create physical distance among the healthy, and triage thousands. But the road to limiting the disease also has led to business, personal and economic devastation for millions.

While biopharma manufacturing and distribution worked to ensure a full supply of medications for their patients, clinical trials not directly related to COVID-19 were put on hold, directly affecting future therapies for complex and rare diseases.

Biopharma sales and marketing organizations quickly responded to the crisis, brainstorming with their agencies on ways to reach HCPs and their worried patients without appearing tone-deaf with overt promotional communications.

Whether this pandemic will come under control by therapeutic intervention or herd immunity, there is no consensus on the lasting business or cultural impact of the crisis. But the world has undoubtedly changed forever. As economist Paul Krugman noted, COVID-19 has been a “shakeout cruise” for the pandemics to come, and even as we struggle to get this crisis under control, we need to get ready for the next.

If ever there were a time for classic scenario planning, it is now.

How business leaders balance their immediate response to the pandemic with longer-term preparations for the “next normal” will determine whether they emerge with strength and competitive advantage or become stuck in a slow growth malaise.

For biopharma leaders, there are three key moves to building resilience now while preparing for tomorrow:

  • Understand the new customer journey
  • Invest in digital transformation
  • Embrace agility

Understand the New Customer Journey

The suddenness of the pandemic and the mandated response dramatically changed the daily lives and practices of HCPs and patients. Physicians not directly involved in hospital-based COVID-19 care began using telehealth to engage their patients through a mix of existing telemedicine technology platforms such as Teladoc along with non-HIPAA-compliant platforms such as Zoom and FaceTime.

Overnight, physicians found themselves juggling phone and video telehealth calls and responding to a deluge of phone messages and portal questions from patients. Any extra time they had was spent scouring online journals and the CDC website for updates on emerging COVID-19 symptom patterns and testing eligibility. Collaboration and information sharing among colleagues across the country spiked.

Physicians also turned to the Internet for information. Approximately 75 percent of doctors said they increased their use of digital resources and 47 percent turned to online research to replace information they usually receive from field reps, according to a Healthcasts study of 361 physicians. Average biopharma HCP website traffic rose by 6.5 percent (DMD) with some resource sites seeing week-over-week jumps of 93 percent in new users and even greater jumps in online sample requests (closerlook client websites).

There was also an immediate impact on existing non-COVID-19 patients as well. The crisis sucked many healthcare providers into hospital systems to care for the critically ill, leaving patients without their primary care physician or specialist. Noncritical chronic patients couldn’t get appointments.

Annual physicals and routine office checkups were deferred indefinitely. According to an 18-country survey by Medisafe, 56 percent of patients and caregivers are concerned that the pandemic will interfere with their medication regimen, particularly prescription refills. Others with non-COVID-19 symptoms may be living with undiagnosed diseases that will continue to progress unchecked. Already there are reports of preventable deaths as an indirect consequence of COVID-19 reprioritization. Meanwhile, mental health issues, including anxiety, are spiking.

While most of our attention has been focused on the immediacy of the pandemic, life goes on. Because the burden of chronic disease, poor patient compliance and undiagnosed rare diseases have not gone away, we need to ensure that we have the resources and capacity to manage both the important and the urgent at the same time.

Invest in Digital Transformation

Our ability to manage the normal challenges of healthcare while being able to flex up to demands of public health emergencies is dependent on speed and scale, both of which technology is ideally suited for. This pandemic has exposed the industry’s lack of digital readiness.

There are still many unknowns about what shape the future will take, but it’s clear that digital communication and services will be central. While frontline sales and marketing staff scramble to learn how to use their CRM platforms, such as Veeva Engage, to provide virtual support for key customers, biopharma leaders should plan for a massive transition to digital.

Ironically, it was physicians who were thrust into a technology leadership role. With the dramatic increase in the use of telemedicine—Forrester Research predicts nearly one billion virtual visits in 2020—virtual-visit technology has finally “crossed the chasm.” Tens of thousands of physicians and hundreds of thousands of patients are experiencing telemedicine for the first time.

Although the initial experience was rocky at first as telehealth companies worked to expand capacity and doctors learned to jump between video and their EMR screen, there was general appreciation for how effective and efficient routine check-ins could be with the technology. For patients worried about their symptoms but not allowed to come to in-office visits, seeing their doctor’s face on their smartphone during a time of crisis has been very reassuring.

Number of Visits Per Day in Transition to Telehealth at One Primary Care Practice

While there has been the loss of the physical presence in the exam room, there is an increase of personal intimacy as patients invite their physician into their home. For doctors, the ability to see their patients’ home environment—“Let’s take a walk to your medicine cabinet and let’s see what you are taking”—has provided a richer context for patient history.

As society gradually reopens, we’ll find that the traditional doctor’s office exam will remain scarce. What will emerge will be a hybrid practice, with office visits focused on new patients, annual physicals and difficult cases. Telemedicine will be used for routine follow-ups, review of lab results and refill requests. For patients who have discovered the ease and convenience of telehealth, there may be no going back.

Large physician practices will discover they don’t need the same real estate footprint and will evolve to “hoteling,” where physicians come to the office with their laptop and set up in a vacant office for a few hours while they see patients. The normal hallway huddle to confer over a patient case will give way to quick texts to colleagues while on the move.

This rapid digital health transformation among physicians and patients presents biopharma sales and marketing with both a challenge and an opportunity. In-person sales rep calls will be discouraged. Virtual sales calls and webinars may take the place of in-person calls, but the bar for relevance will be high. Non-personal promotion will become the primary mode of selling.

Doctors will need easy access to personalized clinical resources. With doctors using telehealth for routine follow-ups and disease management coaching, it will be important for them to have quick access to digital patient education, information on patient services and sample coupons that they can forward via the patient portal.

Short disease and MOA explainer videos, virtual reality and 3-D animated clips, diet and exercise e-brochures or how-to videos and links to online patient support groups will become part of the patient journey. While patients wait in a virtual waiting room for their doctor to see them online, they could be viewing custom videos or infographics or clicking links to education information.

These digital substitutions for how healthcare professionals acquire information and treat patients will change the professional and patient experience and create lasting changes in how biopharma interacts with its customers.

Supporting this digital transformation will be a centralized AI-driven data and communications platform. Data scientists will be embedded with agency and brand teams. Analytics will uncover unique needs and behaviors and deliver insights in minutes that once took days to process.

Machine learning will be used to help match therapies with the right HCPs and patients, build multiwave omnichannel campaigns and customize media experiences that deliver personalization at scale.

Clinical algorithms will be embedded in patient sensors and desktop applications to help remote physicians perform accurate telehealth diagnostics.

All of this is possible today, but most biopharma commercial teams have lacked a compelling reason to make the investment. Until now.

Committing now to the journey to full commercial digital transformation will mean the difference between attaining competitive leadership and falling into commoditization.

Embrace Agility

When the future is unknown, the best way to prepare is to become nimble. Companies that embrace agility across their strategic planning, product development and customer relationships are more likely to succeed.

Economist Ronald Coase postulated in a 1937 article, The Nature of the Firm, that companies are formed when production is more efficient (lower transaction costs) than it would be to contract in the open market.

But as millions of knowledge workers comply with stay-at-home-orders and their companies continue to function, Coase’s theory of the firm calls into question the fundamental reason for the corporation. Is work any less efficient? For biopharma companies with both internal marketers and their digital agency partners all working remotely, where does the company’s border begin or end?

Can remote work result in tighter marketer-agency partnerships and more responsive activity?

This virtual working arrangement offers digital-native agencies a rare opportunity to offload the heavy lifting of digital transformation from pharma’s shoulders and provide leadership in imagining and executing a more effective model for sales and marketing.

The Way Forward

The COVID-19 pandemic has shocked the world to its core. As a species that thrives on personal connections and face-to-face interactions, we are evolving to rely on technology to communicate.

The physician-patient relationship will forever change, with greater reliance on supporting the patient with technology they can quickly access online.

For biopharma companies, digital transformation will alter the way brands connect with their customers.

And for digital agencies, this is the inflection point to support our brand partners, using advanced analytics to provide insight, digital technologies to build personalized content, and digital media to engage and support HCPs and patients with immediacy, convenience and relevance.

A version of this article appeared in the April 2020 issue of Med Ad News.

posts by david ormesher

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