The “Forcing Point” for Pharma: Why It Took a Global Pandemic to Force Behavior Change and True Adoption of Digital in Healthcare

In the absence of physical interactions, COVID-19 is forcing shifts in the pharmaceutical industry from more traditional field-based models to digitized programs designed to engage with patients and providers. Some may say this is a “Tipping Point” but I’d argue it’s a “Forcing Point.” Digital approaches have been around for years, but weren’t implemented to the degree needed to truly change how the industry engages with its customers, runs its businesses, or thinks about technology. Investment in field sales models and tactics has stayed relatively consistent.

So how and why did the pandemic drive a more aggressive shift to digitally transform businesses? Likely because it takes 66 days to change and/or form a habit. As we settled into the second month of quarantine, companies had that necessary time to live without their field-based models and could see that their old-school approaches would no longer work. This realization is forcing mindset and behavior changes and, hopefully, fostering an openness and vulnerability that encourages a new way of thinking.

But how best to accomplish this?

Simply providing iPads and interactive sales aids, and investing in CRM platforms such as Veeva and Salesforce, which many companies have done, hasn’t changed people or their behaviors. Transforming an organization takes a dedicated and measured approach to digital education—encouraging curiosity and problem solving, resulting in ownership of new thinking and behaviors.

It also incorporates a human-centered approach called Design Thinking.

Design Thinking starts with understanding end users (reps and healthcare professionals) while remaining empathetic to their needs and stated problems. Instead of just providing iPads, for example, it involves understanding whether HCPs want to see a rep at all. Did they want a 13” screen to review clinical data held 6 feet away from them? Did reps want a device designed to track their performance vs. improve their engagements with HCPs? No, not in the least. But therein lies the issue. The very thinking was flawed as it focused more on how to use an iPad in the field to track rep and HCP behaviors than on better understanding the end users, their needs and how technology could enable net-new behaviors that would benefit HCPs and pharma brands.

Much of the conversation that we’re seeing today in light of the pandemic is not about reinventing approaches or the use of digital technologies in pharma marketing and sales. Rather, we’re seeing a willingness to embrace approaches that have been proven and well established but lacked adoption. The challenge now is to wrangle strategic partners together who are best suited to execute these types of strategies and corresponding tactics.

Partners who can:

  1. Design their firms using data to uncover deep insights about audiences.
  2. Understand that it’s not just about being creative, but about delivering engaging experiences via digital platforms.
  3. Create, develop and integrate technology platforms together into a seamless digital ecosystem.
  4. Put the power of the data and insights back into the customers’ hands for use across business functions.
  5. Understand the complex web of digital media channels and tactics, how they can be customized with data, and provide personalized experiences in micro-moments that matter.
  6. Harness the ultimate power of digital to demonstrate measurable return on investment (ROI) down to real business metrics such as new prescriptions, total prescriptions and sales.

Here’s a prime example of a forcing point.

Telemedicine has been around a long time but lacked adoption, in many cases because insurance companies didn’t have reimbursement models for these types of appointments. The pandemic created the forcing mechanism to make them a necessity. One Medical and other companies made this investment many years ago and are well positioned to capitalize on COVID-19. And it won’t stop there. We’re likely to see the uberization of healthcare, via an app-like experience that lets a patient call a physician to their house and have their pharmacy deliver medications without any physical interactions. Forcing points like these are going to further impact how we market therapies and how pharma and healthcare as an industry adopt digital approaches.

So how do companies achieve true digital transformation? 

At times, and depending on the organization’s Digital IQ, it may be more efficient to accelerate progress to centralize efforts in a high-functioning group working with technologists and digital evangelists throughout the organization. Once incubated, members of teams with higher Digital IQs can be dispersed into project teams throughout the organization, bringing their knowledge into groups that reach customers. Project teams will learn what actually happens in a website build, a digital media campaign, or an analytics assignment other than what the final product looks like. They’ll learn by listening, asking questions, and learning the range of possibilities of these new avenues of communication.

Unlocking curiosity.

When I was 10 years old, I took apart every doorknob in our house. Not because I wanted to be a locksmith, but because I was curious to learn how they worked. How did the knob trigger the latch or dead bolt? How did it keep the door shut? That same curiosity must be encouraged to drive teams to learn the possibilities of digital communication, how they can be used in new ways to reach customers, setting them free to brainstorm ever more effective ways of engaging and converting them.

To drive true transformation and changes in thinking, we must understand the following:

  1. Digital is the new traditional must be an ingrained belief within an organization. Digital is central and immediate to current communications.
  2. Each employee is the digital person in the room. The days of “bringing the digital person” into the room must become a thing of the past. Dispersing employees with higher Digital IQs into project teams (see above) uplevels everyone’s understanding of technology and ensures that digital solutions will be woven into every tactic and strategy. Digital is in everything we do. It spans every form of communication. It’s no longer an afterthought or nice-to-have. It’s foundational for business.
  3. There is a symbiotic relationship between technology and digital engagements. Voice skills and actions wouldn’t have taken off without the invention of the Amazon Echo and Google Home. Mobile apps and basic features such as SMS wouldn’t exist without smartphones. And services such as Instagram and TikTok wouldn’t exist without sophisticated cameras in smartphones. Understanding the connection and potential between the two will help us create even better user experiences.
  4. User-centric and design thinking approaches are mandatory. Rather than what we want to say, or what we want people to do or buy, we must be empathetic to users to better serve their unmet needs, by communicating the benefits of our products through meaningful digital experiences. We must fundamentally shift the way we think, behave and operate. We also must deliberately hire, train and educate staff to be curious, ask questions, sit with and learn from the practitioners. The organizational changes discussed above will be required to make this happen, but the payoff in output and results will be huge.

Yes, it’s unfortunate that a pandemic has forced the acceleration of digital innovation, but it’s a great time to capitalize on the momentum. Hopefully, this crisis will pass so we can all get back to a sense of normal. However, if organizations do things right, the transformation to new ways of thinking and communicating will stay with us for a long time to come.

–Adam Cossman, Group President and Managing Partner, W2O

Learn more about W2O via our About or Healthcare pages.

Adam Cossman
Adam Cossman

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