Healthcare is undoubtedly one of the most complex and nuanced industries there is, especially in the U.S. So, it is no surprise that the relationship between physicians and pharma is complicated at best.

It is a partnership that has been litigated, regulated and scrutinized beyond imagination. Yet, despite all this, it remains an essential part of the health delivery dynamic.

Even with its codependencies, the pharma-to-physician relationship is showing signs of weakness. According to research from Accenture, only 64% of the meetings healthcare professionals (HCPs) had with pharma sales reps prior to COVID-19 were held in person.

During the pandemic, those numbers have plunged to 35%, with nearly half of the HCPs reporting that this would continue for the foreseeable future.

Burnout is on the rise

One of the contributing factors for this strained relationship is that physicians just don’t have time in their day to meet with pharma reps. According to a study published in the Annals of Family Medicine, for every hour spent with a patient, physicians spend at least two hours working on EMRs.

This added clinical work is responsible for work-life imbalance and has contributed to a higher-than-normal attrition rate (> 50%). First-year medical doctors spend three times as many hours updating EMRs than they spend on patient care.

In addition, doctors are under stain in keeping up with all the medical knowledge that’s now available to them. It is estimated that medical knowledge now doubles every 73 days. In 1950, the doubling of medical knowledge was 50 years; in 1980, 7 years; and in 2010, 3.5 years.

Adding to this, the world’s top medical journals in aggregate publish roughly 7,200 articles each month. To evaluate all this information, it would take a physician more than 620 hours per month. There literally isn’t enough time in the day.

This is not to say that COVID-19 has not had a devastating impact on the traditional pharma-to-physician relationship, but full disclosure regarding the situation can help put the current decline in face-to-face interactions into perspective.

Efficiency is key

According to double board-certified physician Dr. Mandira Mehra, there are several factors that are playing into the trend.

“There are a lot of different reasons for why physicians and their staff are limiting sales visits,” said Dr. Mehra. “For some hospitals, it’s part of their policy, even before COVID-19. But from a doctor’s standpoint, communication with pharma reps has become inefficient. Although an integral part of our work, the process of accessing or contacting reps can be frustrating.”

Efficiency is the key takeaway here. Physicians and their staff don’t have much time for unplanned visits. And getting time on the book can be near impossible.

“Physicians have way more on their plates today than they did even five years ago,” added Dr. Mehra. “With increased patient loads, added responsibilities and more administrative tasks to tackle, there isn’t time for much else.”

There is hope for the struggling relationship, however, because innovative companies like P360, Veeva Systems and IQVIA are working hard to make it more streamlined and efficient, less abrasive and more secure. And physicians can play an important role in deciding what systems pharma uses.

Here are some of the leading options:

P360 believes text messaging is the key

“When we first started exploring the dynamic between healthcare professionals and pharma, we knew that technology could provide a much-needed solution,” said P360 CEO Anupam Nandwana.

“The hard part was deciding what that solution should look like. It had to be flexible, and we knew that it had to be based on the physician’s point of view, and not pharma’s. That’s really what guided our development of the ZING communication module.”

Late last year, as the FDA authorized the first at-home coronavirus test, P360 introduced a solution of its own – the ZING communication module. According to Nandwana, ZING is a multimodal communication platform that enables pharmaceutical reps and healthcare professionals to exchange compliant, two-way unified messaging.

“There are no apps for end-users to download, and there are no subscriptions for them to deal with. To the healthcare professional, the solution is seen as nothing different than their normal method for receiving texts.”

According to Campaign Monitor’s marketing research, text message open rates are as high as 98%, compared with just 20% for email. This makes text-messaging a great alternative to in-office visits. Not only do text messages get read, they also aren’t as disruptive to physicians as in-person visits, phone calls and emails can be.

According to Nandwana, messages through ZING can be automated as well. For example, if a physician needs a coupon, all they have to do is text their rep the name of a product and the word “coupon.”

Veeva Systems is pushing apps 

Veeva Systems, another leading PharmaTech company, has answered the call with a technology solution of its own. In October of last year, Veeva Systems revealed MyVeeva For Doctors. MyVeeva For Doctors is a mobile app for physicians that enables them to find and communicate with sales reps, medical science liaisons (MSLs) and other life science professionals.

Veeva has a strong track record when it comes to developing innovative solutions for the life sciences industry. From both the pharma and HCP perspective, a downloadable app checks off a lot of boxes.

“As HCPs continue to incorporate mobile devices into their daily routines, the case for pharma-related apps makes a lot of sense,” said industry analyst Brian Fitzgerald. “Not only do mobile apps enable pharmaceutical companies to more easily connect with HCPs, they also help with brand-building as well.”

IQVIA takes an online-platform approach

IQVIA is taking a far different approach to how they are helping pharma connect with physicians. The company believes that targeting stakeholders with the right message at the right time dramatically improves engagement. Its model is based on an Orchestrated Customer Engagement approach that includes content-targeting and a mix of engagement options, including web chat, video calling and more. Some refer to this as a sales funnel.

Veeva Systems has a similar model with their Veeva CRM Engage Meeting product.

“Although robust, the funnel approach to HCP engagement hinges on web traffic and online visits,” Fitzgerald said. “If physicians don’t have time for in-person meetings or phone calls, they definitely don’t have time to navigate through sophisticated online funnel processes.”

What does the future hold?

Although industry trends are still laying the foundation for a new normal in pharma-to-physician relations, one thing is clear: Pharma needs to make the relationship as streamlined and easy as possible. Busy physician schedules are increasing on-demand and off-hour engagements. And this need that has been accelerated by COVID-19. Regulations and the pandemic have forced physicians and pharma sales teams to embrace new, mostly digital approaches.

Some of these approaches have been highly effective, as both pharma and physicians are becoming adept at utilizing new technologies to engage. However, there is still a learning curve for all. But pharmaceutical companies that put physicians and their staff first will ultimately win.

“Pharma is a key ally in the advancement of lifesaving treatments and therapies, and that will not change for the foreseeable future,” Dr. Mehra said. “But we need to find a better way to work together, because in the end it will only help the patient. I believe technology holds the key for what’s next.”

It takes two to tango

As pharma reps work to reengage, they’ll need to develop a clearer understanding of when to utilize virtual engagement and when in-person meetings are more appropriate.

Physicians should help guide pharma as to which technologies and which communication channels are the best fit. Virtual interactions provide physicians the flexibility to meet on-demand, or at a time that works best with their schedules. However, virtual engagement provides fewer opportunities for formal and informal collaboration.

There is a lot to consider when it comes to this complex relationship. It’s an intricate dance that is sure to continue.


About the author 

Jay T. Ripton is a freelance healthcare, technology and biomedicine writer out of Scottsdale. He loves to write to inform, educate and provoke minds. Follow him on twitter via @JTRipton.

 

 

 

 

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