The pandemic has upended communications pathways, preferences, and practices for healthcare providers (HCPs). Standing expectations and approaches for communicating with peers, pharma representatives, and patients have been disrupted. Probably permanently.
This forced sea change is being played out against significant background changes in the population of HCPs, their terms of employment, and lifestyle expectations. Digital natives (Millennials) are replacing digital immigrants (Boomers) in key influential positions in academia, hospital networks, and individual practices. Large numbers of physicians are now employees or hospitalists rather than entrepreneurs taking marching orders from corporate chieftains influenced primarily by payers. These psycho-demographic changes open up new possibilities and new interactions between HCPs and their constituencies brought about by COVID-19.
Access to HCPs by pharma reps has been steadily declining over the last few years in spite of the powerful relationships that some reps have with some HCPs. COVID-19 has eliminated live in-person contact and set the stage for future reductions in access. A global Accenture survey of 720 clinicians found that 87% of responders want virtual access to remain in place permanently. Another 39% feel that virtual access should be the only channel, while 43% favor a mix of in-person and non-personal interaction.
Sixty percent of HCPs in a DRG study reported connecting with reps remotely, almost half by email and a third by phone. eDetails, videos, webinars, virtual meeting services, and social media are being employed to bridge the professional and clinical communications gap. The move to virtual communication has, for the most part, accelerated the digital transformation of many pharmaceutical firms which were talking the talk without walking the walk and are playing catch up to gain basic access and influence in digital channels.
Peer-to-peer communication among HCPs is taking place increasingly on social media. Sermo, Doximity and Medscape, the HCP walled gardens, have reported spikes in subscriptions, time spent on site, and the intensity of HCP dialogues. Prompted by the urgent desire to share COVID-19 insights and treatment tactics, countless clinical and specialty groups have formed on Facebook. Professional information and case materials are routinely tweeted. Medical bloggers and self-appointed digital opinion leaders have built loyal and articulate followings among hundreds of thousands of doctors and nurses.
But the greatest change for HCPs has been the way they interact with patients. Telemedicine or telehealth, previously a stepchild, is emerging as an accepted pipeline between doctors, nurses and patients. Secure, compliant, flexible and convenient, telemedicine changes the timing, content, and transparency of the sacred doctor-patient relationship. And while concerns about privacy and HiPAA compliance persist, 80% of HCPs in a Manhattan Research survey were using telemedicine, and more than half expect it to continue to be a dominant patient interaction tool. Sixty-nine percent of HCPs in a Digital Health Coalition (DHC) survey and 71% of Nurse Practitioners (NPs) in a Point of Care Network survey reported prescribing medication as a result of a telemedicine consultation.
Beyond telemedicine, doctors and nurses are engaging patients and caregivers across the digital spectrum. Social media (Facebook, YouTube, Facebook Messenger, Instagram and Twitter) are emerging as direct and indirect patient communication pathways. In addition HCPs are embracing text, email, practice websites and mobile apps along with video tools (Doximity, Facetime, Skype, Zoom, Web-X and MyChart) for checkups, discussing medications, renewing prescriptions, explaining lab results or scans, educating patients on diseases or conditions and re-establishing the relationship and the cadence of appointments.
The disruption of traditional thinking and channels presage the growing adoption of miniaturized, wearable, digital sensors and devices, that collect, monitor and transmit real-time data between patients and HCPs. The Internet of Things (IoT) pipeline is filled with promising tools to monitor vital signs, measure key indicators, assess the impact of medications, benchmark physical activities and generally correlate, calibrate and calculate health-related data with an eye toward optimizing efficacy and directing treatment options in real time.
Critical communication channels have been inalterably changed by the global pandemic. Savvy marketers are devoting energy and resources to embrace digital technologies, understand the changing dynamics of these interactions and help HCPs, pharma and patients adapt to a more personal and real-time future.
The Path Forward
Capitalize on these changing channels. Revisit or revise social media plans, both professional and public to generate brand awareness and lead generation. Use proven engagement elements like video, Gifs, infographics, or polls and surveys to prompt interaction and expand reach through sharing. Plan integrated campaigns with synchronous digital and offline channels to achieve a dominant “surround sound” share of voice. Use search results to inform creative messaging. Link media and messaging to a clear understanding of the journey HCPs take on the way to new thinking, new prescribing or new treatment options. Shifting media use demands shifting media and marketing strategies.
Danny Flamberg is VP Strategy – HCP at LiveWorld, who has supported leading and insurgent pharmaceutical and life science brands including Pfizer, Merck, AstraZeneca, AbbVie, GSK, Novartis, Johnson & Johnson, Genentech, Unilever and Sanofi. The author of Dancing Through the Digital Revolution, he earned a Ph.D. in econometrics at Columbia University.