Marketers: Physicians are People, First

November 17, 2020
Harris Kaplan

Understanding the changes in day-to-day life for physicians during COVID and how life science executives can address them.

Too often we think of physicians as clinicians; intelligent, rational, and wanting to do what’s best for their patients. Understandable, as this is the context in which representatives of life science companies see them.

But it’s important for marketers to remember physicians are also people first, with feelings, needs, and priorities; the same as all of us.

During this time of COVID, physicians have had to grapple with many new challenges in a very short amount of time. These changes have impacted what physicians prioritize in their day-to-day lives and, as life science executives, we need to understand life through their lens if we want to effectively reach and communicate with physicians as well as motivate them to take action.

Maslow’s Hierarchy: A framework for adapting marketing outreach

We’ve found Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs a useful framework for understanding what physicians are thinking about and how we need to adapt outreach and messaging to effectively communicate with them.

For those not familiar with this framework, Maslow’s Hierarchy is a motivational theory in psychology comprising of human needs in a five-tier pyramid model. Needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before people can attend to the needs higher up.

If we take Maslow’s Hierarchy into consideration in terms of how physicians operate, normally, physicians operate at Level 4 in the hierarchy. Their practice and life are built around what most people would generally view as accepted definitions of success. Their physiologic, security, income, and social needs are usually met. They have the pleasure of accomplishment that comes from helping patients improve their health and live better lives. Friends and relatives are admiring of their accomplishments.

COVID-19 has dropped many physicians down 2 to 3 Maslow levels

From interviews my life science consulting firm, Red Team Associates, has conducted with over 50 physicians since the start of the pandemic, primary care physicians and many specialists report being overwhelmed by changes they have had to make and the speed with which they’ve had to make them. In addition to their own health and that of their families (Level 1), physicians have had to worry about their patient’s health. They’ve had to be the voice of support for patients isolated at home and counsel patients who have lost parents, children, homes, jobs, and financial means to support their families.

Physicians have had to develop new workflows, incorporate telehealth technology, and implement new policies for infection control in their offices. Difficult decisions to furlough or lay off support staff have had to be made.

According to a survey conducted in July and published in September 2020 by Medicus in MD Linx,“more than 44% of physicians expect their incomes to fall this year, either somewhat (26.4%) or substantially (18.2%). Compare that with 2019, when about 11% of physicians expected to see a drop in income.”(Level 2).

Moreover, with many physicians not going to their office every day, they’ve lost day-to-day contact with their colleagues, and are feeling very isolated (Level 3).

What this new norm means for marketers

Most marketers have responded quickly, switching many of their communications channels from personal to digital. Virtual medicine, meetings, seminars, and board review courses have now become the new norm. Manufacturers of medical devices that need to be demonstrated are unable to do so because of access restrictions.

Detail representatives who normally can make five to six physician calls per day are making one to two if they’re lucky. Many calls are done via Zoom.

How a company communicates with a physician digitally is very different in terms of channels used, messaging, visuals, and call to action. Companies have to clamor for attention in a physician’s burgeoning in-box and recognize that it’s a lot more difficult to get access. There may be less time in which to get your message across and it’s more difficult to gauge the physician’s reaction to what’s being communicated, the lingua franca of the effective representative.

New Reality: Incumbent products are harder to displace

With physician’s attention focused on maintaining the viability of their practice and staying healthy, getting physicians to change their behavior, try a new product, or switch to a different product is just not a priority. This clearly favors products already on the market and in use.

The new threshold for driving brand adoption or switching is whether a product’s message is compelling. Some of the comments we’ve heard include:

“I’m in charge of the hospital’s decision to evaluate new products. Unless a product is revolutionary, is backed by solid clinical evidence, and used by people I know and respect, I’m not interested. And if it’s higher priced than what I’m using, you can forget it.” - Orthopedic Surgeon, Major Teaching Hospital
“Unless a new product is really a breakthrough, your new product is 45th on my list of top-10 priorities.” - Primary care physician, office based
“I’m not going to switch a patient’s prescription to a new product without seeing that patient first. And that is hard to do right now. Many patients don’t want to come in to the office and I don’t want them to if I can manage them via telephone, e-mail, or Zoom.” - OB/GYN, office based
“I’m lazy. Switching a patient’s therapy requires me to re-enter their data into the EMR. Or worse, get approval from their insurance company. I don’t have staff right now to do that. Whereas if I renew their existing prescription, I just push the renew button and it’s done.” - Allergist, hospital based in Europe

Steps a marketer can take to break through

Complacency is the enemy of progress. Physicians will continue to do what they’ve always done unless the product you’re marketing is a real breakthrough and its benefits compelling. Using the Maslow’s Hierarchy and framing your activities so they address many of the issues both physicians and patients are facing could be the key to longer term success.

Level 1 – food, water, rest, health

Physician-patient dialogue

Effective communications between physician and patient can often be a challenge in normal times. But, when due to safety concerns Zoom-side manner or telephone calls replace the normal patient face-to-face visit, it’s even more difficult. Make it easy for physicians to communicate with patients by developing educational materials or links physicians can use in conversations with patients. A few years ago, I wrote an article entitled, “Your Customer’s Customer is Your Customer.” In reality, the physician is really the sales force for your product and anything you can do to help them with their customer will benefit you and your company.

Level 2 – Security

Bring the patient into the Zoom

From many physicians we have interviewed, we know many are reticent to try a new product or switch a patient’s medication without physically seeing the patient. Combine that with the fact that most physicians are not used to doing patient outreach or no longer have the staff to do so even if they want to, unless you find a way to either get the patient to the physician or get the physician comfortable enough with your product to be willing to adopt it or switch a patient, your market share potential is capped.

Within the constraints imposed by HIPAA, companies that can find ways of providing assistance or support for a physician’s practice to reach out to patients and inform them of a new therapy helps the practice financially while doing something that benefits the patient.

One of our clients offered a coupon to patients to encourage them to reach out to the physician and discuss the new product. Simple as that strategy is, it has been successful in getting patients to visit their physicians and convert their existing therapy to the new one.

Leverage the power of the patient

It is common practice to inform physicians about new products prior to promoting them to patients. However, we suggest one new wrinkle: tell physicians that have either not responded to a company’s marketing efforts or have been very slow to do so that you’re going to launch a major DTP campaign. The campaign will encourage patients to contact their physicians or provide information to patients. It behooves a physician to be aware of and knowledgeable about a new therapy or run the risk that the patient will attempt to find a physician who is.

Level 3 – Socialization

Compelling trumps complacency

Don’t just tell a physician your product is better, make it compelling.Identify the patient segments for whom your product is compelling and focus on those. Maybe you leave some money on the table by not letting the physician decide which patients your product should be used in, but they’ll do that anyway and you’ll earn the respect and trust of that physician for zeroing in on those patients who will most benefit from your product. Time is money and that’s especially true now.

For example, with one client recently, rather than touting the new product’s benefits across all patients, we focused in on children with the condition because interviews showed parents much more excited about the new product’s benefits. Far more than adult patients, parents were also more willing to take immediate action, including visiting their physician.Plus, we could leverage the power and influence of the school nurse.

Putting physicians in-touch with others

The ability to connect groups of physicians via technologies such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams gives the manufacturer the ability to act more quickly, flexibly, and affordably than trying to make these connections in person.

Many physicians, by nature, are conservative. While they may not want to be the first to adopt a new technology, they also don’t want to be the last. They want to know who’s using the product and what their experience has been. KOLs may be useful, but, increasingly, many physicians view KOLs with some degree of skepticism, knowing that these physicians are often being funded by the manufacturer. Given the power of technologies like Zoom, you can make your segmentation come to life by connecting physicians in similar circumstances with each other.

Level 4 – Feeling of accomplishment

Give the physician a feeling of accomplishment

Technology makes it easy to leverage your MSLs who can engage with physicians and address questions they have. Make the physician feel good about his/her understanding of your product. The question that comes to mind is whether the MSL post-COVID-19 really becomes the detail force of the future?

Conclusion: Time to put customer-centricity into action

What’s in it for me? There’s never been a more important time to address that question for physicians and patients.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents marketers with unforeseen and unprecedented challenges, but it also presents smart marketers with opportunities.

Many of the changes that have taken place in healthcare delivery are likely to remain with us long after we have a vaccine. As an example, payers are already starting to compensate physicians for tele-health visits comparable to personal visits.

Physicians need new and better products. But they also need patients. Marketers who appreciate where physicians are currently relative to Maslow’s Hierarchy and use the power of technology to address the physicians needs at all levels will reap the rewards many times over once the immediate crisis has abated.

Remember, physicians are people first.

Harris Kaplan, Managing Partner, Red Team Associates

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