The Agile Future of Medical Information: Meeting 21st-Century Demands for Healthcare

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COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated raised expectations for medical information professionals.

The COVID-19 pandemic has elevated and transformed the role of Medical Information (MI) services in a short period of time. MI channels, including contact centers, email- and web-based, were relied on more and more by healthcare practitioners (HCPs) and individuals to provide reliable sources of information concerning COVID vaccines, available treatments, and the medical devices being used to combat the negative effects of the pandemic, as well as for non-COVID products. However, this increased demand on traditional MI services highlighted issues that must be addressed to enable more efficient workflows in the new environment of digital communications.

A new era of MI challenges

MI teams were facing unique challenges before the pandemic even started. Managing a rapidly increasing number of inquiries from new channels and varying formats, as well as rising expectations for high-quality customer service, was causing concerns for many pharmaceutical companies. With the move to virtual engagements due to social distancing needs, this struggle is increasing even more as both HCPs and patients shift to different means of communication and expectations for remote healthcare.

Now, MI experts are expected to respond to any requests in near real time and across multiple channels whether it is email, online chats, phone, or social media. Not only is there pressure to respond, but MI teams are also required to identify, capture, and report any inquiries that might reflect an adverse reaction (AE) or product complaint (PQC) issue. Speed and accuracy are of essence when identifying, capturing, and reporting AEs and PQCs, as pharmaceutical companies are required by regulations to respond to and address any such inquiries in a timely fashion. Any delays cause firms to risk patient safety, regulatory compliance, and brand reputation. Meeting these demands requires MI teams to establish more agile workflows.

There are three key steps that MI teams can take to ease the transition to a more active, responsive, and scalable engagement model, while simultaneously achieving time and cost savings, as well as ensuring regulatory and quality compliance—ultimately leading to higher levels of patient safety.

1. Expect unexpected volume surges—MI inquiry volume spikes are a regular occurrence but are also unpredictable. Anything could trigger a sudden influx of inquiries, including a product launch, a product recall, a sudden increase in AEs or PQCs, or a global pandemic. Thanks to social media, and the interconnectivity enjoyed by HCPs and patients with internet access around the world, an MI inquiry surge can take place over a matter of hours.

Unfortunately, human-only MI teams are not yet designed for that level of adaptability to handle sudden influxes of inquiries. As a result, many pharmaceutical companies are adopting a new approach to MI services, where experts are trained to respond across multiple product types and countries. This provides additional support for MI teams when it’s suddenly needed. Some companies are also taking the added step of cross-training their contact center agents to handle MI inquiries when needed, as well as for other activities they are performing.

While this new approach requires a much more robust hiring and training program for MI team members, it also provides more agility, enabling them to meet the demands of quickly shifting levels of inquiries. This leads to risk reduction, a more skilled workforce, and ultimately a better customer experience for the inquirer.

2. Enabling remote work is critical—The pandemic forced enterprises in almost every industry to embrace remote work, whether they were ready or not. The healthcare industry is no exception.

When it comes to MI services, remote workers are essential for an agile workflow. Instead of clustering MI teams together in a single building to monitor activity and ensure the quality of operations, managers can now use technology solutions to track, manage, and support their remote teams. Digital performance management systems help MI managers monitor key performance indicators (KPIs), such as call volumes, duration of calls, the time it takes to respond to an inquiry, customer satisfaction levels, and any other key metrics that must be documented.

This new approach to MI management can be tough for some organizations. Managers who are accustomed to in-person interactions and managing a physical office environment may be initially disoriented by this new strategy. In a remote workplace, MI managers must be more intentional with how they engage their teams by leveraging digital technology to provide feedback, address knowledge gaps, and lead team-building exercises through virtual conferencing tools. MI manager-led socialization activities, such as remote team building, can greatly assist with important aspects such as staff retention and the exchange of key skills and experiences.

3. Automate customer engagements when necessary—Artificial intelligence (AI)-driven conversational agents have improved remarkably compared to their capabilities from previous years. Today’s deeply intuitive AI-powered agents can automatically respond to many MI inquiries in a way with which HCPs and patients can easily and comfortably engage.

Technology advancements in the areas of AI, machine learning (ML), and natural language processing allow such digital agents to respond to inquiries with highly specific feedback in a personalized manner based on the type of inquirer. As the agents handle more inquiries, they learn more about the intricacies of a company’s products and customers, further enhancing the inquiry “journey.” Digital agents can even be trained in relevant therapeutic taxonomies and can quickly access previous communications histories to reference past interactions with a particular patient to provide a smooth and efficient experience.

Deploying AI-powered agents allows human experts to handle more complex inquiries that require more immediate attention and so best utilize their skills and capabilities. It also allows MI teams to optimize their headcount, removing the need for sprawling teams of remote workers that must be managed digitally.

The impact of agile MI workflows

Driving changes in MI services has always been a challenge. MI departments were often considered a cost center rather than a revenue generator. However, COVID has highlighted the opportunity to elevate MI services to a key source of information and customer support for pharmaceutical companies, increasing the importance of this activity area.

MI teams are looking for ways to better train and utilize staff, leverage innovative technologies, and provide high levels of customer service and regulatory compliance. In today’s omnichannel world, enabling agile MI workflows through process automation and AI-driven agents is critical to the success of MI initiatives. Ultimately, this type of technology-enabled agility will lead to reduced costs, reduced risk, and consistently excellent service and delivery.

Alisa Hummings is senior director, IQVIA Medical Information and CEVA, and Simon Johns is director, IQVIA Medical Information and Marketed Product Safety.