Q&A with Jason Bernstein, Director and Head of Medical Communications Strategy at epocrates

In this Q&A, Jason Bernstein, Director and Head, Medical Communications Strategy at epocrates, a mobile medical reference app that provides current safety, diagnostic, and treatment information for healthcare professionals, talks about the changes in the pharma marketing landscape, particularly around marketing content surrounding telemedicine consultations.

Pharm Exec: The pandemic has disrupted nearly every industry. What are some of the challenges and opportunities that have emerged for pharma marketers?

Jason Bernstein: The overall consensus is that personalized marketing has never been more important than it is today, a time when healthcare professionals and patients carefully navigating their new reality. While their primary target audiences are adjusting to the lack of personal touch between each other, the field force and marketing personnel are going to find it even more challenging to get their messages across. The task has become harder with an ever-increasing proportion of virtual calls with doctors resulting from the pandemic.

Early indications from several physician surveys suggest that this trend is probably here to stay. However, this presents pharma the opportunity to redefine its relevance to healthcare professionals and consumers through innovative and timely branding, messaging, and channels.

The industry has been rapidly forced to reach HCPs almost entirely through digital channels. How do you think that will impact marketing strategies in the future?

The accelerated attrition in physician facetime due to the COVID-19 pandemic has created an increased demand for digital approaches, including non-personal promotion (NPP) as a key component of digital marketing strategy. It’s no secret that doctors expect a better digital effort from pharma companies1 and the demand has recently accelerated.

When establishing a pharma digital strategy, it is essential to minimize the risk of brand-direct promotional fatigue; instead, brands should consider at least desktop and mobile messaging through an omnichannel strategy to sell a comprehensive story that travels across the chosen multi-screen platforms.

However, by adopting hypertargeting with AI and machine learning, we can better predict consumer behavior and physician prescribing patterns, as well as gauge the impact of marketing channels and messaging strategies. While AI has the potential to transform the commercial pharma landscape though, it’s equally important to remember that it can’t replace the power of “being present” when a HCP is interacting with a particular piece of information.

How is the growing presence of telemedicine impacting the way marketers reach HCPs?

The first thing to know is that physicians are the ones driving this trend, with athenahealth data revealing2 a 10-time increase in overall telehealth volume across its network in 2020. Without a doubt, telemedicine is the clear winner in this pandemic landscape. The goal is to utilize telemedicine usage data from the recent past to ensure optimization and sustainability of telehealth and make the best use of its potential to help providers and patients.

With increasing familiarity and control over the COVID-19 pandemic, non-emergent and ongoing care for chronic diseases are picking up once again, with some telemedicine providers seeing a novel trend of remote monitoring for patients who need chronic care. Advances in remote monitoring tools such as wearable tech that can track vitals and other parameters such as blood sugar have played a part in this transformation. These early signs point toward the viable future for a broader telehealth platform, as it gradually evolves from a one-off treatment to more of a long-term care model, resembling the traditional primary care practice.

Brands have already begun to leverage the convenience and privacy of telemedicine to engage in conversations with consumers on potentially embarrassing medical issues. Telehealth also offers exciting media opportunities at the front- and back-ends of telemedicine visits, such as strategically placed video spots in the telehealth waiting rooms with content related to the patient's condition.

Can you provide some examples of how telemedicine can specifically be used as part of a marketing strategy?

Telemedicine offers direct attribution and instant engagement, making it a powerful tool for healthcare and pharmaceutical brands to interact with doctors via push or pull marketing strategies. While doubling of medical knowledge might have taken 50 years in the 1950s, an article from 2011 estimated that would take 73 days in 2020, implying doctors who graduate in 2020 will experience at least four doublings in knowledge. Clearly, doctors need help to quickly find information, and that urgency only continues to grow.

In another one physician survey, 80% of respondents said they ask for information from manufacturers inside their EHR, which points toward untapped opportunities for brands to be present at the point of care when practitioners need them. Integration into telemedicine allows brands to employ contextual messaging by automating its delivery based on the patient condition and current exchanges with a specific patient.

Telemedicine will also enable brands to deploy trigger-based messages to healthcare professionals at relevant and receptive moments during a consultation journey, such as the prescription phase. While these engagements are bound to strict guidelines, digital tools have already created a precedent for such remote interactions in the United States by allowing doctors to interact directly with the medical teams of pharma companies such as Pfizer and Amgen.

How has the rise of social media influencers affected healthcare communications strategies?

With the rise of social media as the latest health information hub along with a budding crop of health and lifestyle influencers, hyper-personalized messaging in a non-coercive manner has become the primary imperative in healthcare communications. The success of emerging health and lifestyle influencers is attributed to how their content is tailored to their audiences, and pharma brands should shape their brand messaging to resonate with their customers at such deep levels.

How can companies deploy timely messaging to keep up with an ever-changing landscape?

Timely messaging can change a brand’s fortunes when done right, and businesses should evolve to ensure their communications are aligned with what is taking precedence in the present business and media landscape. An example is Salix Pharmaceuticals’ recent survey that highlighted a gap in inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS) care, with 35% of respondents saying they have not discussed their IBS symptoms with an HCP since COVID-19.

This initiative has helped Salix3 take the data to doctors and patients and drive productive conversations between the two, and in turn increase the uptake of their IBS portfolio. This is an example where the timely utilization of contextual and personalized messages by a pharma company has hit the right nerve with healthcare professionals and consumers.

1 https://clarivate.com/products/research-reports/report/manpq10320-digital-re-taking-the-pulse-covid-toolkit-us-2020/?lid=d

2 https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20210309005235/en/athenahealth-Creates-Online-Telehealth-Insights-Dashboard-to-Help-Practices-Benchmark-Their-Performance-and-Find-Opportunities-to-Better-Meet-Provider-and-Patient-Needs

3 http://www.multivu.com/players/English/8700351-salix-pharmaceuticals-survey-living-with-ibs-in-a-pandemic/