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Engaging the New HCP in the Digital World


Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive-02-01-2020
Volume 40
Issue 2

Amid the growth but still-cautious embrace of social media and other digital marketing channels, appealing to the younger physician requires a nuanced approach-mixing proven expertise with fresh ideas.

While pharmaceutical marketers are well aware of the changes in engaging with younger physicians and healthcare professionals (HCPs), the saying “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”-probably a generationally relevant idiomatic expression-applies. While a brand team’s methods to reach HCPs should incorporate the tried and true, it should be experimenting with new ideas to engage with a younger audience.

Market research firm InCrowd recently conducted a microsurvey to gain deeper insight into physicians’ online habits by age. According to Philip Moyer, InCrowd vice president of crowd operations, the study data, which is to be regarded as directional only (total n=123), is based on responses from:

  • Primary care physicians (PCPs) and specialists in practice for fewer than 10 years, n=62

  • PCPs and specialists in practice for more than 20 years, n=61

For social media channels used for professional purposes, Doximity (63%), Facebook (49%), and LinkedIn (49%) are the top choices for all physicians surveyed. However, though both generations of respondents still use Doximity as a first choice, older physicians preferred LinkedIn over Facebook. Moyer noted that younger physicians use social media to crowdsource clinical questions, seek informal advice from peers, and learn from cases.

And while social media is used for professional connections in these examples, the personal connections are ones that physicians are justly wary of. Moyer noted that HCPs prefer to communicate with patients in a limited capacity, and using social media or texting is very limited. “Examples of doctors doing that are few and far between. They have to be careful what they say online and they don’t want to be cast in a negative light,” says Moyer. “Though younger physicians may be online more, many don’t want to go beyond communicating directly through their CRM (customer relationship management). Part of this is about privacy and comfort. But it’s also about protecting their own time and limiting the way they are connected to work outside of office hours.”

However, InCrowd did find that younger physicians generally embrace the use of new technology to communicate with patients more than their older counterparts do. For instance, younger HCPs are more comfortable pulling up an app or searching for information while in the room with a patient.

In addition, older physicians are more likely to reach out to patients by phone, whereas younger doctors have higher comfort levels in using electronic medical records (EMRs) to communicate with patients and share articles or other resources.

While the InCrowd survey did find that there was “a level of consciousness about not posting controversial opinions online,” there are anecdotal observations around social media that some are taking to those platforms to raise concerns.

For example, Murray Aitken, executive director of IQVIA Institute, who reported the Institute’s findings on the oncology landscape to the Pharm Exec Editorial Advisory Board, said, “Oncologists are becoming more aware and more vocal as to whether all of these new drugs are really breakthrough even when the FDA tags them as breakthrough drugs. And if you follow Twitter, there is a very active debate among leading oncologists around the quality of the evidence, and that’s not something we saw too much of five years ago. So I think that scrutiny is worth watching.” While this is not controversial nor personal (except in that it is a person sharing their opinion), it is an area of social media use that may change in the future.

But as for the use of social media outside of the personal purview, most believe pharma is hesitant, though many pharma companies do maintain corporate social media accounts, and on Twitter some promote progress on public health initiatives, innovation, and patient stories.

The IQVIA Commercial Compliance division plans, on average, 130,000 HCP meetings and engagements per year. According to Frank Spender, its senior director, compliance services, and Staci Hutchinson, director, global client services, the use of social media for pharma to engage or communicate to physicians is still in its very early stages for a variety of reasons, mostly related to trust and the wariness factor.

“Pharma wants trustworthy sources, and to be able to guide the conversation, which is difficult with social media,” says Spender.

However, that concern doesn’t limit what the IQVIA team is experimenting with in other technologies to engage with the younger HCP. “We see a shift away from email and phone and a shift toward things that are quicker, as well as text,” says Hutchinson. “That is playing out in the type of events people are interested in. We see virtual and e-learning more popular with the younger HCPs, so high-tech solutions to be able to participate in e-learning is grabbing the attention of pharma.” For example, Hutchinson says holograms, which might seem far out there, is something drugmakers are exploring.



Use of video is also transforming the younger HCP engagement. Hutchinson notes that events can shift from entirely live interactions, to possibly a blend of live studio broadcast with members available via video conferencing and viewed on a panel wall, or speaker trainings that are virtual with a video component.

In a nutshell, Spender and Hutchinson agree that all the technologies that the public is exposed to in general life-exemplified by how far smartphone capabilities and video/audio conferencing has come in a very short time-are reflected when engaging the younger HCP. “We see that technology changes with engagement will be significantly different in the next two years,” says Hutchinson.

Trusted sources and access

As noted, there is a level of skepticism and trust among all parties involved with new technologies-be they digital or social media. Eli Phillips, Jr., vice president of insights and engagement, Cardinal Health, says that newer HCPs are still looking for guidance and mentorship in their practice and seek the expertise of those who have been around the block.

“We think about how we put channels together for these new practitioners,” says Phillips. “And what that looks like is a mix of podcasts, webcasts, and on-demand recordings with KOLs (key opinion leaders) that the younger HCPs can easily access and use as a trusted source.” Phillips notes that KOLs have adapted to the use of digital technology and social media because they recognize that is where the world is going and continue to take leadership roles in these mediums as well.

The InCrowd survey did find, however, that both older and younger physicians see KOLs as having diluted clout in the current environment of readily available information, and shared these sentiments on reasons why KOL impact seems diminished:

  • Access to information has changed the “authority” of KOLs.

  • It’s easier today than ever to get a broad range of information.

  • It’s harder for any single voice to break through the noise.

  • It’s more difficult to tell today who are the actual KOLs.

  • Some feel that KOLs are less experts and more pharmaceutical spokespeople than they used to be-perhaps related to wider societal distrust of institutions.

Moyer did say that the role of the KOL will always be important, because their interpretations can help filter out the noise and best translate data. Another factor is that most information online still comes from KOLs and leaders at academic institutions-it just doesn’t feel so closely attached to a KOL when the HCP is reading the source online rather than hearing that person speak from the lectern at a conference.

Another generational finding from the InCrowd survey was that older physicians pride themselves on still reading physical books and physical journals. If they see an interesting summary or comment on an article online, they are more likely to read the primary literature rather than be “spoon-fed” high-level summaries. In that regard, they felt that residents and students know their way around online apps, but they also can tend to latch onto the first answer that catches their eye rather than spending time developing a broader perspective.

Phillips believes that more novice practitioners do have a propensity to not want to read journals or articles at that stage of their careers.

“New practitioners have just spent all their time on education and learning, and now they want to focus on patient care,” explains Phillips. “So it’s not engaging for them to go back to print and read a journal article. They want easy online access…maybe clinical decision tools, algorithms…and they really want to be with patients.”


Lisa Henderson is Pharm Exec’s Editor-in-Chief. She can be reached at lhenderson@mmhgroup.com


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