Dr. Fiona Blanco, a dermatologist at Douglaston Dermatology in Queens, New York, is seeing a brisk uptick in patients who had delayed seeking medical attention during much of COVID. With more patients to see, that leaves less time for pharmaceutical reps who routinely visited her office—and the ones that do get an audience have to be a lot more concise in their pitch. “If reps aren’t able to tell me something new, or connect me to a valuable resource, I just don’t have the time,” she said.
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It’s a conundrum for the $1.31 trillion pharmaceutical industry, which has already suffered a $10 billion global financial loss since February 2020, according to a recent McKinsey & Co. report. With dwindling access to clinicians due to the pandemic restricting sales rep visits, the industry is rethinking how it presents information to healthcare providers with solutions like virtual rep visits, new approaches to e-mail marketing, refreshed websites, podcasts and videos on connected devices.
“We’re not necessarily inventing completely new ways, but more bedazzling the ways we would do things pre-pandemic,” said Angela Harrison, group creative director at Fingerpaint, an independent healthcare agency based in Saratoga Springs, New York. “There’s a lot of digital noise to break through, so we’re spending more time on things that may seem trivial like, ‘Do you add an emoji to a subject line?’—who knew you could spend two hours thinking and talking about that?”
Another agency has turned in-person promotion into online tools. Jeff Bartsch, senior VP at Harrison and Star, a healthcare agency that counts Merck, Bristol Myers Squibb, Pfizer and Gilead among its clients, said: “We recently turned a traditional in-service program into a rep-team recorded presentation.” By doing this quick fix, he added, “we were able to execute quickly and efficiently, and the program led to virtual follow ups with reps.”
However, the need for human connection remains. One agency described using handwritten notes on envelopes to personalize information for doctors to make them feel special; pre-pandemic, the agency may have simply sent a group e-blast.
Mixing it up
Virtual engagement seems to be the way of the future, at least in part. According to a 2020 Accenture survey on physician attitudes and behaviors, during the pandemic, 65% of rep calls were virtual, and 87% of providers surveyed said they want to see either all virtual or a mix of virtual and in-person meetings even after the pandemic ends.
To accommodate this new normal, instead of traditional materials in the hands of reps, agencies are supplementing limited rep visits with digital content. Many are creating juicer, more comprehensive websites. Most of these sites feature hub services for patient assistance programs, chat rooms, videos and access to experts on reimbursement. According to Gregg Fisher, managing partner of The Stem—a global management consulting firm specializing in customer engagement and digital transformation in life sciences—pharmaceutical companies that offered options like text or email for instantaneous answers did well during the pandemic. “The simple world of creating detail aids for face-to-face meetings no longer flies,” he said.