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Don't Be a COVID Copycat: Digital Engagement is Not Enough


Even before COVID-19, over 50% of pharma companies were piloting or using virtual and live remote e-detailing as standard practice. Companies need to go further to have a real impact, writes Rasim Shah.

The COVID-19 virus and subsequent lockdown has been the catalyst for the long-awaited digital transformation of the pharmaceutical industry, forcing an unprecedented shift in the way we communicate with key stakeholders. However, as fast as it feels, we may not be going as far or as fast as we need to.

Bayer, Pfizer, GSK are among the titans that have grounded entire rep forces1 and turned to digital solutions to help navigate this crisis. Yet, despite the significance of these numbers, it has to offset the overall decline in HCP interaction (compared to pre-COVID levels).2 While Veeva Systems has reported that face-to-face engagement has reduced by 49%, approved emails sent and virtual meetings rose by 112% and 395% respectively,3 these numbers only tell us that one thing has decreased and another increased. The critical finding comes from Mckinsey & Company, who report a 65% on average decline in HCP interactions over the last two months compared to pre-crisis levels,4 demonstrating that the increase in digital engagement is not offsetting the overall decline in face-to-face interactions.

While quantity is not the only metric, it is clear that digital engagement is not a like-for-like replacement. The industry must do more than simply replace one with the other if it is to avoid a dramatic commercial drop-off.

What to change and what to keep

We require a focus on new technologies and business models that will, in the short term, enable reps to succeed. Once the crisis has passed, we must also avoid a future that fails to capture the learnings of this crisis.   What stays constant, however, is that sales reps remain the bridge between HCPs, their patients and the innovative therapies that the pharmaceutical industry provides. In order to continue to bring value and lay the groundwork for long-term success, any new business plan must continue to see, think, and respond to the imperatives of the business and HCPs.   And we must stay positive. COVID-19 is in fact a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to close the divide between what pharma delivers and what HCPs require.


Capture the lessons


Governments and policymakers are in the midst of developing lockdown exit strategies. What is clear is that, in the medium term, we will not return to “business as usual.” This adds further fuel to the need to find permanent communication solutions that go a step further than remote engagement.   In considering a truly innovative business model, the availability of data and insights are critical. Reps must be supported with insights powered by a granular understanding of patient populations, geographies, the environment and historic activity in order to drive positive outcomes.   But data and insights don’t bring value by themselves. We need systems that learn from the data and extract value from it. And that’s where AI comes in. We must embrace technology to empower sales teams, allowing them to prioritise engaging HCPs where the need is greatest, supporting them with suggestions around what conversations can be had and delivering the evidence they need to take action by explaining why.   Utilizing data and AI will enable teams to both see and think differently about customers, at scale. Reps must be empowered to select the most suitable engagement method (remote or otherwise) that delivers value to the HCP.   What does this look like? My recommended model gives four priority options:  

1. Centralize and tailor

  Organizations must focus on giving reps across territories one view of the truth. Systems that enable strategy teams and field teams to have the same view of the data, tailored to their needs. Tailored insights allow sales teams to be agile in their customer engagement in line with what will be needed when the restrictions are lifted. For example, a sales rep will need to know where to engage, through what channel and why. The vast amount of input data can be used to guide their actions and focus efforts where it is needed most.  

2. Personalize and deliver

  Individual teams must consider the implications of the lifting restrictions on customer journeys. Having a view of where, for example, prescription behavior has changed, clinics have been postponed, hospital appointments have been missed, linked with a view of disease prevalence to allow teams to build game plans based on individual HCP needs. This information must be shared with sales teams in order to inform the account plans that will be created in a post-COVID world.  

3. Iterate and learn

  Systems that can ingest and learn from a huge quantity of data and deliver insights at speed to drive action need to be a core part of the sales function. We must avoid a future that fails to capture the learnings of the past and the learnings of this crisis. AI insights and suggestions should be constantly flowing, learning all the time and changing according to new data. We must also allow reps to feedback into systems to drive cross-organizational learning and improve data capture as well as improving the retention of knowledge.  

4. Mobilize and scale

  With a single view of the truth, working groups can scale learning across geographies. Adopting a digital business model that will enable reps to navigate an ever-changing HCP landscape.   Working in this way, with a digital mindset, is the future. Already two-thirds of HCPs are digital natives - and by 2025, millennials and younger generations will add up to 75% of the healthcare workforce.


But don’t be a COVID copycat: even before the virus, virtual and live remote e-detailing had been adopted by over 50% of pharma companies piloting or using this technology as standard practice.


You need to go much further to have a real impact.   Utilizing digital channels effectively is already here. But to drive the behavior change desperately needed in our industry, engaging with HCPs must be supported with intelligent AI recommendations. After all, if we change behavior, we can change the outcome.  

Rasim Shah is Director at

 OKRA Technologies.




https://www.fiercepharma.com/marketing/pharma-sales-reps-stay-home-minimize-face-time-physicians-as-covid-19- spread-continues


McKinsey & Company, COVID-19 and commercial pharma: Navigating an uneven recovery

 (2020).   3.


  4. McKinsey (2020).   5. Across Health, 

Across Health Multichannel Maturometer

 (2019).   6. PEW Research Centre, 

Millennials are the largest generation in the U.S. labor force 

(2018).   7.



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