Express Pharma

Why is a romance burgeoning between pharma and telehealth? 

An analysis of how these growing alliances can enable the pharma sector to seek more effective ways to reach out and communicate with prescribers and KoLs

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Pharma marketing is an area where one-on-one interactions reigned before the pandemic. But, as the coronavirus outbreak severely curtailed physical interactions, almost overnight, it became essential for the pharma industry to embrace newer ways and approaches to communicate with its key audiences – prescribers and patients. 

So, as pharma marketers redraw their plans to cope with the new normal, we are witnessing a burgeoning romance between pharma players and telehealth and/or physician-only platforms. 

Express Pharma approached pharma players, telehealth platforms and industry observers to understand the causes and implications of this development. What we found is that these alliances signal paradigm shifts in pharma marketing such as: 

Changing behavioural patterns

Traditional models of marketing are getting replaced by newer ones supported by digital technologies. But, what’s interesting is that this trend is likely to continue long after the pandemic subsides.

A report released in early June by Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance (IPA) and Boston Consulting Group (BCG), highlighted how imperative it is for pharma and healthcare companies to engage with prescribers through digital avenues. The report also revealed that “with restricted access becoming the new normal, 70 per cent prescribers are willing to continue engaging with healthcare companies through digital mediums and 60 per cent prescribers are inclined to continue virtual interactions with salespersons.” 

Stakeholders, partners and observers of the pharma industry corroborate these findings. 

Sudarshan Jain, Secretary-General – Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance, points out, “COVID-19 has impacted the traditional way of doing business and we are likely to see an increase in the emergence of technology platforms.” 

Sharad Tyagi, Managing Director, Boehringer Ingelheim India, informs, “Pharma industry has been evaluating the potential of digital platforms globally as a way of offering appropriate and customised solutions to doctors and other stakeholders. What coronavirus has done, is jolt the industry into overdrive in implementing several such initiatives because the traditional model of communicating face-to-face in doctors’ clinics was severely disrupted.”

He adds, “The industry, especially well-organised players, have had a very successful experience in digital interactions with doctors. Doctors in India are open to adopting digital mediums and the acceptance level is considerably higher than a lot of countries across the globe. Hence, there will be a rapid movement towards ‘on-demand’ platforms which will allow doctors to access the information they want, at the time and frequency they want. That is when digital will truly play to its potential for the industry.”

 “We are seeing an unforeseen shift in the mind-set of our pharma colleagues and customers. There is a push amongst everyone to move towards digital platforms. For all of us digital is no longer the future, it is the now. The best part is the customers are really receptive at present when they are reached online,” admits Kulwinder Singh, Chief Communication Officer at Cadila Pharma who spearheads digital initiatives. He adds, “The power of digital is immense and the current environment will require us to embrace this.”

Thus, pharma marketers started experimenting with different avenues to engage prescribers and consumers and this trend, in turn, contributed to growing collaborations between telehealth platforms and the pharma sector. 

A spokesperson from Merck Healthcare India points out, “Pharma companies have quickly transformed from being digitally naïve to aggressive users of digital channels to connect with HCPs, both through the field force as well as directly through various platforms. As per recent primary research done by a market research organisation, the rapid adoption of digital channels has been highlighted. For instance, the use of online platforms such as Lybrate, DocPlexus, Curofy and M3 have been instrumental in reaching out to super specialists, and that is a great transformation.”

Jitesh Agarwal, Founder of Treelife, an advisory firm, also illuminates, “A conspicuous evolution in consumer behaviour has forced major pharma industries to explore the digital world. Consumers have reflected an inclination towards “on-demand” medical services. The reliance on online-consultations and delivery of medical drugs have witnessed a steep increase. A recent survey conducted by Deloitte has concluded that approximately 52 per cent of consumers resort to online media to explore and research on various health concerns, associated treatments as well as suitable healthcare institutions.” 

“Hence, pharma companies have adopted a unique approach to such an evolution. Instead of functioning independent to such platforms, many have opted to establish collaborations with them. By partnering with telemedicine platforms, the pharma industry will have a much wider and direct reach towards their target consumers (physicians or medical practitioners). This mitigates the damage and lack of sale and promotions that were otherwise executed physically. The practitioners as well have a simplified media to stay abreast with the launch and effects of medical drugs,” he explains.

A shift towards tailored and targeted strategies

There seems to be a consensus in the pharma industry that it is time to move away from broad strokes to market drugs. Thus, not just the medium but the modes and methods of pharma marketing are also undergoing a change. The ‘one-size-fits-all approach’ is gradually seeing a decline and drug makers are looking to tap into critical insights about customers, prescribers with differentiated strategies.  

Tyagi apprises, “COVID-19 has certainly changed priorities in the pharma industry and companies are conscious of the fact that in a post–COVID-19 world, pharma sales and marketing will be significantly altered and in many ways for the better! There will be well-balanced plans and initiatives for digital and face-to-face interactions depending on the need, content and doctor priorities for the same. The balance between digital and face-to-face interactions will be fundamentally driven by customer needs.”

Singh states, “One of the biggest shifts that we see is how we engage the customers moving forward. Marketing of products in pharma has mostly been science-based but with movement towards digital, the teams would now have to blend science with storytelling.” 

The partnerships with telehealth and physician-only platforms also reflect how drugmakers are seeking new ways to examine behaviours to fine-tune their approaches and content to leverage more value in these complex environment. 

Tyagi explains, “Digital mediums have emerged as promising avenues for information sharing, enhanced insights, interactions, awareness and solutions on healthcare. We are witnessing an increased level of adoption of telehealth opportunities supporting health information exchanges that further enable better engagement between HCPs and pharma companies.”