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Bridget Seay, epocrates’ executive director of customer experience & commercial consulting chats with Fran Pollaro about delivering the best patient care despite evolving clinical guidelines, patient management, and concerns around practice safety. The conversation inevitably leads to digital—touching on telehealth as a strong delivery vehicle and an opportunity for marketers, and also stressing the importance of personalization buttressed by the use of high-quality data.
Pharm Exec: Which HCP specialties were particularly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of prescribing and changing guidelines and where do they stand today?
Bridget Seay: As we know, the pandemic was a catalyst for change in how healthcare providers (HCPs) provide care. However, in addition to the entire industry needing to overcome operational and procedural challenges, many specialties faced unique challenges in establishing a pre-pandemic level of care, which pharma leaders need to consider in their marketing efforts. At epocrates, we evaluated three specialties that had specific practice challenges and considerations to overcome to deliver the best patient care despite evolving clinical guidelines, patient management, and concerns around practice safety. These specialties are dermatology, psychiatry, and gastroenterology.
In dermatology practices, COVID-19 raised important management issues that generated expert guidelines on how to best implement immunosuppressant and immunomodulatory therapies in skin diseases. As a result, patient registries were created to track data on COVID-19 outcomes, including whether the regular prescribing of biologics increases susceptibility to COVID-19 infection. Today, adverse outcomes, infections and mortality related to prescribing are still being studied, and the results will likely have a further impact on product selection and practice in dermatology care. As we move beyond the pandemic, dermatologists are likely going to see updated therapeutic strategies that can affect their clinical decision-making.
For psychiatry, a significant problem was the need for greater flexibility in prior authorizations of psychiatric treatments, so patients don’t experience disruptions in accessing their prescription. Several psychiatric products require Risk Evaluation & Mitigation Strategy (REMS) authorization as drugs are subject to laboratory monitoring. Currently, HCPs use their independent judgement in adhering to dispensing requirements with risk and benefit assessment for uninterrupted treatment due to more limited availability of laboratory testing. For example, patients who are prescribed clozapine for treatment-resistant schizophrenia may be at higher risk of becoming infected with COVID-19. Moving forward, updated guidelines that reflect changes in product prescribing may be directly related to COVID-19, which requires prescribers to have an even stronger understanding of drug products in this new light.
Finally, gastroenterology is an area where the pandemic generated significant shifts in continued guideline updates for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). It was discovered that the viral RNA of the COVID-19 virus may be present in the GI tract, which had immediate impacts for diagnosis, precautions, and treatment protocols. In addition, the pandemic spurred changes in immune therapies for people with GI disorders. New guidelines for IBM medications were released on how to treat IBM for all patients during the pandemic and for those with a COVID-19 diagnosis. As COVID-19 continues to mutate, gastroenterology HCPs are tasked with continuous monitoring of updated treatment guidelines.
Telehealth has clearly emerged as a strong care delivery vehicle during the pandemic. How has telehealth impacted diagnosis and prescribing processes across these specialty areas? How are telehealth platforms planning to monetize on their platforms via advertising?
The increased use of telehealth has gained a strong foothold in the psychiatry and mental health spaces, especially for virtual visits to address substance abuse management. As a result, the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) released guidance to provide flexibility in prescription of otherwise highly restricted products, such as buprenorphine, naloxone, and other medication-assisted treatments for addiction that made telemedicine acceptable for patient evaluation. This and statements provided by the FDA requiring changes to prescribing medication to treat opioid use disorders (OUD) ensured expanded and uninterrupted pharmacotherapy during the pandemic.
While the nature of a mental health visit can be easily transferred to a virtual visit format, the same is not always true for dermatology. Dermatology practices turned to telehealth for non-emergency visits, however, this shift to telemedicine can lead to delays in skin cancer diagnosis and treatment. There are still important questions around the quality of virtual visits in this space, which means dermatologists are seeking evidence-based information and solutions.
More generally, telehealth offers a unique channel for pharma marketers to promote lifesaving treatments to patients and HCPs directly at the point of care. While this is obviously beneficial to advertisers, it’s also beneficial to patients and HCPs because telehealth advertising presents them with critical decision-making information when they need it most.
Why is it important for pharma marketers to understand and adapt to the practice changes and increased digital consumption spurred by COVID-19?
As we move beyond the pandemic, telehealth isn’t going anywhere. We’re seeing a continued variation of virtual and in-person visits, which means virtual engagement will remain persistent. Pharma companies need to continually adapt to this trend in order to impactfully engage with HCPs. This is where we see digital and non-personal promotion filling a gap. Additionally, keeping up with the changing landscape also requires pharma marketers to discover which areas of sales access are still low, while using data to determine where engagement is highest to ensure non-personal promotion is achieving the greatest impact.
How can pharma marketers improve the digital experience for HCPs across specialties?
It’s important to note that all specialties still require some level of in-person visits, particularly where advanced screening might be necessary. Areas such as oncology, dermatology, dentistry, OBGYN, orthopedics, and cardiology are just a few examples of specialties that require more in-person visits. But it’s essential for pharma marketers to continue monitoring the treatment environment across specialties. This includes considering the mix of telehealth and in-person visits, as well as sales rep access, to inform how they manage digital marketing campaigns. Additionally, there needs to be a strong focus on developing new digital content that’s relevant to the current treatment environment. The notable shift to digital marketing doesn’t mean it can’t be empathetic though. Undoubtedly, the pandemic highlighted how important human connection is, and HCPs are no exception. Even with clinical content, it’s important to add personal touches to impactful details, while being mindful of HCP specialty and practice-specific experiences. Also, pharma marketers can consider developing content for supportive programming like HCP and patient support resources.
Digital promotion can sometimes come off as inauthentic. Why is it so important that today’s pharma marketers focus on personalization?
Personalization is essential to successful pharma marketing in today’s world – HCPs across specialties are dealing with unique challenges and it’s important to recognize the substantial changes in prescribing guidelines. To nail personalized marketing tactics, pharma leaders need to leverage specific data to target individual HCPs based on their specialty and behavior. This empowers marketers to drive a stronger impact with relevant content and optimize with tactics that provide flexibility in scaling and cadence accordingly.
Even in a post-pandemic world, physicians will continue to be inundated with mountains of information on how to best diagnose and deliver quality care within very specific therapeutic landscapes, which warrants highly customized analysis of HCP behavior. The relevance of specialty-by-specialty approaches continues to increase across medical communications, while we strive to improve HCP experiences in digital approaches.