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COVID-19 impacts pharma marketing, digital outreach grows popular

Doctors prefer to get information beyond medicines like medical updates, new treatment regulations, guidelines and all companies involved in manufacturing through online communication

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As lockdown in India gets lifted in a phased manner to revive the economy, many pharma companies are planning to open up its marketing and sales activities in non-containment zones. But, the industry seems divided on allowing the field force to make visits to clinics and hospitals.

S V Veeramani, Chairman and Managing Director, Fourrts Laboratories is in favour of opening up fieldwork in non-containment zones. He opines, “Apart from production, pharma companies need to concentrate on marketing and distribution of the products so that there are no shortages of essential medicines. With marketing teams unable to visit and assess the market situation due to lockdown, companies are unable to take remedial measures to avoid short supply. Hence, they are trying to open up the field workforce in non-containment zones with proper safeguards. Marketing professionals have been advised to wear masks and gloves, carry hand sanitisers and follow social distancing during work. Moreover, they have been advised to meet only willing customers.”

However, Salil Kallianpur, Founder and MD Arks Knowledge Consulting, cautions, “Many pharma companies have put out directives to their sales teams asking them to resume work in non-containment zones. I think this is not a good thing to do, given that we don’t have large scale vaccinations yet. We have all heard of the poor food delivery boys who contracted the infection as they went from home to home delivering food. Medical representatives are going into the most dangerous places on earth called hospitals. Ironically, these are where infections spread the fastest. It is also unclear at this moment if doctors and hospital administration will allow medical reps to visit their clinics or hospitals given the risk of infections. Why companies are doing this is to get back to business continuity as quickly as possible. While this is understandable, it is not the best thing to do considering the huge risk of infections.”

JS Chauhan, Managing Director, Obsurge Biotech outlines the difficulties, “Although green and orange zones are open, marketing is not reasonably possible. There is a lot of fear in the minds of medical representatives who go out for work. At the same time, doctors also are not preferring visits from medical representatives to their clinics/hospitals, currently. Moreover, since public transport is not working properly, there are a lot of hindrances in smooth operations. Normalcy is not expected in the short term because of various restrictions and fear. This is a dangerous situation and can cause irreparable loss to companies.”

Kaushik Desai Pharma Consultant, said,  “Medical Representatives’ main function is to meet doctors in person and brief them about their company products. But, the lockdown has been just lifted and still, people are afraid to venture out. Private doctors are hesitant to open their clinics although advised. So, MRs can, at the most, start visiting doctors in OPD of hospitals, subject to their availability and pharmacy outlets nearby to get first-hand knowledge of the stock. Doctors are emotionally not ready to entertain MR and patients too. There are transport constraints as well, which does not make it easy for MRs to travel unless and until they have their own mode of transport. It will be worthwhile to start MR working in phases with flexibility, set guidelines and making them aware of following hygiene standards. The companies can utilise this time more productively by virtual training of MRs for digital marketing, expand their product knowledge and upgrade their skills.  The future is likely to change the outlook and working of MRs.” ”

Digital marketing on the rise

To reduce the risk of spread of COVID-19, many state-level doctors’ associations have communicated to pharma companies as well as medical sales representatives associations about the suspension of all visits from the representatives of pharma companies.

Doctors are preferring to get information like medical updates, new treatment regulations, guidelines and all companies involved in manufacturing through online communication. They are increasingly getting comfortable with remote reach as they do with patients and caregivers.

As a result, it’s a good time for pharma to try and master alternative reach outs to doctors. It seems imminent that the role of medical representatives post COVID-19 will see a transformation from its traditional practice.

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