Words by Kirstie Turner
For years, pharmaceutical companies have remained unwavering in their preference for traditional communication techniques, relying on tried and tested face-to-face personal interactions. While some companies have dipped their toes in the AI pond, virtual communication has not been embraced by all. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown companies in at the deep end – forcing them to explore and utilise new digital communication solutions to maintain engagement with HCPs during the crisis. Their benefit is being realised now, but will these new strategies reinvent the nature of personal engagement in the post-COVID world?
The pandemic, which induced lockdown measures around the world, has heightened the need for digital communication solutions as face-to-face interactions have been compromised. conversationHEALTH has kept a close eye on how COVID has impacted pharma’s communication with HCPs, as their Chief Operating Officer, Richard Marcil, explains: “HCPs are overwhelmed with patient demand and changes to how they practice in a world where face-to-face has been dramatically reduced. HCPs have spent the last 5 months evolving how they engage and manage their patients through digital channels, so it is not surprising that they would expect the same from pharma: leveraging a shift to self-service models where interactions are low friction, efficient and, ideally, on demand.” In a time when virtually every other industry has adopted radical new customer models, pharma must evolve quickly and recognise that traditional marketing must be replaced, or complemented, by an expanding portfolio of digital opportunities.
Digital strategies were once used to complement or enhance traditional practices. Now, their role has shifted from ‘nice to have’ to ‘need to have’. Wagdy Youssef MD, MBA, Senior Director Medical Communications and Medical Information, Bayer US, says: “What was once considered an advantage prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, has now become a necessity for the healthcare industry to maintain the quality of HCP and patient support. Yet, to date, many of these initiatives have been ad hoc, and even experimental, in nature.” It has been said that necessity is the mother of innovation and invention, and this has been proven during the pandemic, as companies explore new approaches to communication.
Dr John Reeves, conversationHEALTH Founder & CEO, explains this horizon: “New digital channels are emerging that address the needs for HCPs to connect with pharma at the ‘moment of need’ in order to meet their information and educational needs. One of these new channels – and one that, in many ways, replicates the power of face-to-face interactions with reps or MSLs – is conversational AI, typically referred to as ‘text’ or ‘voice bots’. Bots represent a new channel, one where content is replaced by conversation and where search is replaced by ask.” AI bots enable pharma to have smarter, more efficient communication with HCPs, which feels far more collaborative and less like marketing in nature.
These tools are answering the demand for more immediate support by HCPs, who are busier than ever. “HCPs want access to manufacturer and brands assets 24/7 and 365 days a year. They want an immediate response to their real-time needs – without the requirement of connecting to a human,” explains Dr. Reeves. conversationHEALTH is now collaborating with close to 20 global pharma as they begin their journey into the world of conversational AI. Reeves adds: “conversationHEALTH has developed an AI powered platform that enables brands to participate in HCP initiated conversations - which flips the traditional sales and marketing model from push to pull.”
“Most importantly, conversational AI chatbots bring simplicity to the HCP interaction. HCPs no longer have to learn the unique Information Architectures that companies have created to deliver their digital content - whether that be from marketing, sales, or medical affairs business units. Instead, conversational solutions simply require that the user leverage simply text or voice inputs – it’s as simple as ask - and get your answer,” continues Reeves.
While the potential for chatbots is game-changing, it is critical to remember that technology is not being used to replace human interaction, but to enrich it. Marcil explains: “It is clear that humans still play a critical role in engaging HCPs. Conversational AI chatbots are very powerful in fronting engagement, providing vast amounts of information on the spot, automating complex workflows, and generally making HCPs lives easier. But they don’t replace sales reps for new product introductions, or MSLs for clinical consults.” With digital managing interactions that are simple, and/or required outside business hours – sales reps and MSLs can be liberated to concentrate on those interactions that need their expertise.
Looking to the future, Youssef says: “Medical leaders should endeavor to anticipate future needs for the coming 5–10 years and beyond; they should deploy a strategy to ensure their businesses are prepared to continue to serve patients and HCPs while enduring changing environments.” It is critical that companies take what they have learnt during the pandemic and continually innovate their communication processes in the future.
For now, pharma should continue to invest time and money into digital solutions, such as conversation AI, and use this to enhance their current communication strategies, allowing the two to complement each other. Marcil concludes: “The ability to pair a rep with a bot – with both aware of the other’s customer interactions and informing next best activities – provides the HCP with the best of both worlds.”