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The doctors have spoken: what physicians need from pharma comms in the post-pandemic world

In the rapidly changing field of medicine, effective communications are essential to ensuring that innovations are cascaded out across the health system.

COVID-19 rendered the primary face-to-face model of engagement obsolete. With no time to waste, the industry turned to digital means of engagement.

While the initial turmoil of the pandemic appears to have plateaued, the impact of COVID-19 is still very present in healthcare. Faced with increasing wait times and delays in patient diagnosis and treatment, many healthcare systems are struggling to cope, with ever growing pressures on doctors’ time.

New research from M3 highlights the need for pharma to adapt their communication efforts to help ease the burden placed on doctors. Here, M3’s Dr Maxim Polyakov and Dr Deepak Jadon, consultant rheumatologist at Cambridge University Hospitals, discuss some of the key findings of this research.

“Health systems today are under a huge amount of stress,” says Polyakov. “To fit into doctors’ busy diaries in a way that’s most helpful for the doctor and most effective for pharma, the industry needs to change how they engage with their customers.”

Understanding the current pressures on doctors

Even after the end of the COVID-19 peak, doctors are busier than ever. Backlogs and delays in health care reached record levels due to the pandemic, putting substantial pressure on already stretched healthcare systems and professionals.

Although efforts are underway to reduce the current backlog of patients and restore services to pre-pandemic levels, there is no guarantee that healthcare systems will fully recover. In a survey of 750 doctors across the UK, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, M3 found that approximately 20% of doctors do not believe referral waiting times can be reduced to pre-COVID levels, while 40% think this is possible, but will take many months to achieve.

Without capacity in the system to accommodate all the patients who need to be seen in a timely manner, HCPs are struggling to cope under the immense pressure of heavier workloads, longer hours, and no clear end to the current situation.

“To see 65% of doctors saying that they’re having to work harder this year than before COVID-19 is shocking,” says Polyakov. “At a very human level, it’s important to recognise that there’s been a huge cost to the healthcare profession, as doctors are still having to work harder because of staffing pressures and the huge numbers of patients who need to be seen.”

The physical and mental impact of the pandemic on the European healthcare workforce is clear. Of those surveyed, 89% agreed that clinical staff where they work are more exhausted or burnt out than before the pandemic. Clinical staff are also more likely to take early retirement, take long-term sick leave, or leave medicine altogether than before COVID-19.

Across the healthcare ecosystem, stakeholders must find solutions to ease the burden on HCPs, including giving them the information, tools, and time they need to navigate this challenging period.

Permanent shifts in ways of working

Alongside the impact of COVID-19 on capacity and services, the pandemic fuelled a significant shift in the day-to-day working and communication habits of doctors. Amid lockdowns and social distancing restrictions, a surge of remote and digital approaches rose to fill the gap left by the sudden loss of face-to-face interaction. Driven by necessity, doctors rapidly worked to adapt to this stark inversion.

However, this extreme remote- and digital-only approach was never expected to last. As restrictions lifted and face-to-face interactions began to resume, a balance of hybrid engagement emerged – both in how doctors engage with patients, as well as pharmaceutical companies.

As Polyakov explains, “If you consider what a doctor’s day looks like now and how pharma fits into that day, it is quite different to the way it looked before COVID. For example, doctors are on the phone a lot more, they’re in front of their computers, they might get online referrals that need to be reviewed. Our survey showed, for instance, that in EU5 countries, doctors will spend about double the amount of time interacting with patients remotely than they did pre-COVID.

“In effect, it’s no longer just patient, ten minutes, next patient, ten minutes. It’s a much more hybrid approach to working, across more modalities. To fit into that day successfully and in a way that’s helpful to their customers and respectful of the pressures they are under, pharma companies need to think about how they can adapt their approach to reflect these hybrid engagement patterns.”

With approximately 50% of surveyed doctors across the EU5 expecting to spend half or more of their engagement time with pharma online, about twice the level seen before the pandemic, it is evident that interest in a mixture of digital and face-to-face communications with pharmaceutical companies is here to stay.

It is a stark contrast to established pre-pandemic ways of working. Before COVID-19, doctors primarily engaged with pharma via reps, face-to-face. Now, having been introduced to systems and services that allow them to interact with industry content on their own terms, doctors are open to a wider variety of engagement options that reflect their preferences.

Consequently, the onus is on the industry to adapt, as the traditional approach to engagement is unlikely to continue to suit the individual requirements of their customers.

As Jadon explains, “If a pharma rep was going to travel from Manchester or Newcastle to come and see me, I would feel I need to give them some value for their time and offer them at least a half an hour appointment. I would therefore find it harder to find time in my diary to do so. Whereas if I’m going to do it online, I don’t mind doing a ten-minute call because they’re not travelling four hours to come and see me. As a result, I often prefer to engage with pharma online – it just fits better with my diary.”

What do doctors want?

To realise this vision of a flexible, multi-channel engagement approach that connects with the individual preferences of today’s doctors, pharma companies will have to evolve and challenge existing ways of creating and delivering content.

Today, effective communication starts with understanding your audience. For pharma companies, this requires a careful and thoughtful design of robust data-driven customer journeys that can be deployed at scale and improved over time. By tailoring communications to the needs and preferences of individuals, companies can ensure that the information is useful and accessible so that doctors will – however busy they are – want to engage with it.

“Doctors want information as long as it’s new and valuable,” says Polyakov. “However, the burden is on the communicator – i.e. pharma companies – to find out what is valuable to different members of their audience, and to serve them content that is as closely tailored to their needs as possible.”

As Jadon explains further: “To cut through the noise and increase accessibility, it is important to address potential barriers that may deter a doctor from engaging with content. If someone sends me something for which I have to fill out yet another registration form and then remember the username and password, I’m not going to do it,” he says. “Pharma needs to make it as easy for me as possible to engage with them. That’s the big thing.”

“This is not an easy situation for marketeers,” says Polyakov. “They used to have a few big channels to work through. Now, within just a few short years, they have to work across multiple, fragmented channels, all of which are important. There is also a growing expectation for personalisation, meaning they need to tailor what they do to the needs of different segments of their audience, taking into account their diverging content, format, and channel preferences – and do this at scale. Finally, all of this needs to be tracked and continuously reviewed, with insights fed into the next turn of the wheel. This is a big change to standard processes, resource allocation, and ways of working.”

A key learning from the survey highlights this dynamic. When asked to select channels through which they would want to receive information before prescribing a new product for the first time, only 27% of doctors surveyed in the UK said they would want to speak to a pharmaceutical company product or medical rep.

Speaking on this, Polyakov notes: “In the UK, even in a ‘new product’ situation where a doctor hasn’t prescribed a drug before, pharma can no longer rely on traditional rep interactions. They need to learn to use a broad range of sources to get the right information to their customers. This is a fundamental shift to how the industry used to operate.”

Bridging the gap between traditional and digital engagement

For Polyakov, one important lesson to take from the study is that, during this difficult time, it’s even more important for the industry to do everything it can to help doctors, including providing them with information on their terms.

This means understanding what content doctors need and want, and using the right channels to make this information accessible to them, increasing the value and impact of each interaction.

“Having realised that they can have a choice, doctors now want to engage in a way that suits them,” explains Polyakov. “The ball is now in pharma’s court. To play the next shot well, pharma must adapt to the current situation and implement a proper omnichannel strategy, tailored to individual customer segments and operationalised at scale; and driven by data and insights about doctors’ behaviour and preferences that are derived from robust primary and secondary research.”

He concludes, “This is, of course, not a trivial challenge, and will require time, resources, and expertise to get right. The good news is that, even now, there are some platforms out there that can offer this level of service to pharma.”

About the interviewees

Dr Maxim Polyakov

Dr Maxim Polyakov is director, strategic accounts, within M3’s business intelligence and research division. He is passionate about using data to drive better decisions, and ensuring that the voice and needs of patients and HCPs remain at the centre of healthcare systems.

Dr Deepak Jadon

 Dr Deepak Jadon is a consultant in rheumatology and director of the Rheumatology Research Unit at Cambridge University Hospitals, UK. He leads the psoriatic arthritis service, co-leads the ankylosing spondylitis service and co-chairs multi-specialty meetings for IBD-spondyloarthritis, psoriasis-spondyloarthritis, and the East of England spondyloarthritis MDT. He leads a large rheumatology research team conducting academic studies and clinical trials in rheumatology. He is a clinical researcher (associate principal investigator) in the Department of Medicine, University of Cambridge. He is director of studies at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge.

About M3

M3 Logo SquM3 is the world’s largest network of verified doctors with over six million members across many key markets; our closed and local communities of doctors are trusted by our members as places where they can reach content relevant to their profile and their geography. M3 has over 20 years’ experience in building online doctor communities. These communities include Doctors.net.uk in the UK, Vidal in France, and m3.com in Japan and offer clients a unique opportunity to communicate with doctors. M3 is committed to its mission to use technology to help people live longer, healthier lives and reduce costs in healthcare.

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