The digital transformation is not a new topic for the pharmaceutical industry, as the increasing role of data and insights and their usefulness to improve customer experience is being discussed since the last decade. The Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent lockdowns have favoured the transition of many activities from the physical office to remote working, affecting all the different functions of a typical pharma company.

This is especially true for digital marketing, that switched to remote interactions between doctors and reps since the very beginning of the pandemic. According to an article by Richard Staines published in Pharmaphorum, the pharmaceutical industry is now running to fill its historical gap in digitalisation, being this the last industrial sector to move towards the new business model.

The growing of digital marketing

Pharmaceuticals’ digital advertising is growing very rapidly, with estimates to reach $9.53 billion in 2020 (14.2% vs 2019) and $11.25 billion in 2021 (+18%, data eMarketer). Launches of new medicines are now mostly managed online, with companies able to provide also through this new channel highly accurate and robust scientific information to doctors, and in full compliance with all regulatory requirements. The interactions occurring on the digital platforms, explains Staines, may contribute to improve the efficiency of the relationships between reps and healthcare professionals (HCPs), thanks to the possibility to personalise the digital channels for the preferred interaction. Sharing of the marketing documentation, after its preventive and uniform approval across all the different geographic areas of operation of the company, becomes also easier, as well as the tracking of the reps-HCPs interactions needed to provide feedbacks to the top management.

A report by Ethoseo identifies five trends for digital marketing in 2021, starting from the increasing role played by artificial intelligence (AI) and automation. The use of progressive sequences of questions in automated chat conversations may help in better identifying visitors’ needs and to provide automated and selected feedback under a personal custom workflow, so to achieve an higher degree of personalisation of the customer’s journey.

Apps or websites developed by healthcare providers are increasingly becoming a reference point to find structured information for patients searching online. Telemedicine and remote care are also gaining increasing importance, as they allow to optimise the interaction with patients while keeping costs under control. According to Ethoseo, “non-intrusive methods that can educate patients about conditions and treatment options” represent an interesting opportunity for pharma companies to cooperate in order to overcome the big about of misinformation about health and medicine on the web. New strategies are also needed to win the “race” to appear within the first positions of a Google search, as the algorithms are favouring snippets containing key terms. Digital videos are expected to become an increasingly important tool to engage patients to pro-actively take care of their health conditions.

A survey on the transition to the digital model

A survey run in April 2020 by Reuters and Omnipresence on 1,365 senior professionals mostly working in pharma (82.8%) in the EMEA region (73%) and biotech, medtech/device or consumer health companies took a picture of how companies were adapting to the new digital mode of working and interactions. Investments in infrastructures are key enablers for the creation of unified platforms to be used to manage data from multiple digital channels in order to provide a true omnichannel customer experience, explained the CEO of Omnipresence, Sanjay Virmani, in an inteview published in Pharmaphorum. “If different departments are not coordinated, how can the customer get all the information they need with the proper context? And if the company does not provide that seamless experience, the customer has to glue it together themself or not get it”, he said.

According to the survey, half (50%) of the respondents expected new investments for technologies and software to occur in their company in order to improve customer interactions, while just a quarter (25%) said investments would have been directed to improve internal processes. This despite 84% said remote working will permanently increase. A decrease in budgets for medicinal conferences were also foreseen in April 2020 (75%), paralleled by growing difficulties to access face-to-face interactions (74%), the need of strong investments in customer experience (80%), and a negative expected impact on the numbers of salesforces (49,5%). Webinars and webcasts have been the mostly used channels of interactions during the Covid-19 (86,6%), followed by live remote or phone detailing (85,4%) and emails (76,6%). The great majority of respondents (78.8%) said the company performed a repurposing of marketing contents for fully support virtual engagements and have activated specific e-training sessions for salesforce (65.3%). More than half (59,4%) of participants to the survey said also HCPs who historically preferred face-to-face interactions are transitioning smoothly to remote engagement efforts.

Platforms still need improvements

The survey also presents data on the more widely diffused technologies and solutions in the pharmaceutical sector. Veeva maintains a leading position in the CRM segment (51%, vs 26% for Salesforce), while more uniform is the situation as for remote collaboration software (32% Microsoft Teams, 28% Veeva Engage, 20% Zoom). In the salesforce automation software segment, a significant 20% of respondents said the process is handled by and agency (vs using 27% Salesforce Marketing Automation,10% Adobe).

In the CRM area, 70% of the interviewed managers said CRM software still need to better convert the insights obtained from different channels into digital workflows/CRM. Another critical point identified by the survey is the need for a more agile method to insert and consolidate insights across channels (75%), and for improved method and quality for the collected data (65%). Still around one third of the respondents (29%) did not dispose of the right platform capabilities in order to achieve the complete digitalisation of sales and marketing; significantly, 47% of the sample would not support a complete virtual engagement journey of healthcare professionals, but a third (29%) said changes to CRM was under consideration.

Digitalisation in Medical Affairs and clinical trials

The Medical Affairs function is gaining a strategic importance within pharmaceutical companies, due to the role played to ensure robust development and scientific communication frameworks for the products. According to the Omnipresence’s survey, 88% of respondents said the need for medical affairs leadership in the company has never been greater than during the Covid-19. The pandemic caused many people working in commercial departments to show a more open attitude towards collaboration with medical affairs (73%); the improved perceived value of this internal function is expected in most cases (69%) to represent a permanent change within the company.

The digitalisation impressed by the health emergency had also a great impact on the modalities to perform clinical trials, as the lockdowns pushed clinical research associates (CRAs) to run remote monitoring instead of visiting the clinical centres involved in experimentation. According to the Omnipresence survey, just 44% of the respondents said the rapid implementation of digital processes allowed the company to save the majority of its trial. Half of the sample (50%) was not confident about the ability of CROs to run a fast transition on the short-term; the confidence is much greater (92%) on the long-term, with reference to the opportunities offered by digital technologies to contribute to the optimisation of the cost-effectiveness of clinical studies. This transformation will require pharmaceutical companies to run systems for the acquisition of remote consent, perform remote randomisation and remote data capture. This last action may also benefit from the wider diffusion of wearables and other devices able to collect data from remote and to generate clinical real-world evidence (RWE) to be used for regulatory purposes.

Trust in the potential of RWE is increasing both internally to pharmaceutical companies (69%) and between patients (76%),even if according to the survey specific expertise in RWE is still needed (70%). The Covid-19 experience also showed the importance of the customer response as the main source to inform the decision-making processes, together with the direct contribution of patients.

Changes in market access

According to Omnipresence, around half of respondents (47%) said Covid-19 also caused the acceleration towards the development of more innovative payment models; payers and other market access stakeholders have also become more open to innovative ways to provide scientific and clinical evidence (54,2%).

The market access experience turned to be a need also for other internal functions during the pandemic, according to 65.3% of respondents. The increasing adoption by payers of performance-based schemes and data capabilities is expected was a main outcome in the post-pandemic, with new models able to create better health outcomes for the patients (78,9%), or a permanent change of operating models expected by an half of the sample (55%).