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The post-pandemic evolution of pharma-doctor digital interactions

M3’s Tim Russell and Maxim Polyakov, together with Digital Futureway’s Heather Hancock, discuss new research on how doctor engagement has been altered by COVID-19.

COVID-19 forced an unprecedented shift towards the virtual delivery of healthcare, suddenly compelling doctors increasingly to use digital means to care for their patients.

As healthcare resources and delivery were prioritised, there was also a massive and ongoing impact on growing waiting lists and time-lags for diagnosis and treatment.

That picture of how patient needs and patient-doctor interactions are changing will shortly be fully painted by the release of a new white paper from M3 on engaging doctors in a post-COVID-19 world.

The publication will also look at the pandemic’s impact on communications between the industry and doctors. Here, M3’s Tim Russell and Maxim Polyakov, together with pharma consultant Heather Hancock, discuss a key aspect of the new research: the evolving picture of pharma’s digital and face-to-face interactions with doctors.

Tim explains: “The research clearly shows that pharma companies need to consider the ways that COVID-19 has changed the patient-doctor dynamic and look at what they can do to facilitate overall better patient care, better quality of life and better patient outcomes now and when the pandemic comes to an end.

“The reality is that the doctor-patient dynamic is going to be different every time. The goal is to create and facilitate a meaningful, informed interaction between a patient and a doctor. Any content you create for healthcare professionals and how you disseminate it needs ultimately to support an informed conversation between patient and doctor.”

COVID-19’s impact on pharma and its engagement efforts

On the whole, healthcare as a sector has historically been slower to grasp the full range of possibilities from digital communication. As a result, and despite the breadth of online choices available to them, pharma companies typically employed face-to-face channels as their main go to market model.

M3 surveyed more than 1,000 doctors from Germany, France, the UK, Spain and Italy. More than 60% said that, pre-pandemic, they spent over 90% of their time on face-to-face contact with industry sales representatives, key account managers (KAMs) and medical science liaisons (MSLs), compared to the time they devoted to pharma’s online communications. A further 20% of doctors surveyed said they spent at least half of their time on face-to-face contact with the industry.

Commenting on the primacy of the face-to-face channel, Heather Hancock, managing director of consultancy Digital Futureway, says: “Even though pharma companies had dramatically reduced their field forces – specifically their primary care sales forces – even before COVID-19, face-to-face was certainly the dominant channel in the old commercial model.”

That changed overnight as countries went into restrictive lockdowns and doctors almost entirely halted any face-to-face contact with the pharma industry.

Maxim Polyakov, M3’s director of strategic accounts, notes: “COVID-19 definitely changed the way the healthcare systems operated, with a huge push towards digital and remote paradigms – including in doctor-pharma interactions.”

What followed, change-wise, was the application of a digital accelerant right across pharma and the entire healthcare spectrum, as often-voiced (though less commonly followed) plans for digital transformation were actually put into action, bringing with them an unprecedented amount of change. The rise of a consistent approach from pharma companies to advocate best practice of telehealth was one of the more noticeable aspects of this.

Tim says: “A conjoint and consistent approach regarding telehealth is what is needed – not every company pushing their own agenda, but rather a collaborative approach and advocacy for examples of best practice tools that actually support patient outcomes and make doctor/patient interaction significantly more efficient, regardless of their origin.”

Methods for communicating and interacting also underwent a huge change but, based on the experiences of the early acute phases on the pandemic, significant opportunity for further development remains. “COVID-19 forced instant change, and perhaps that’s what was needed,” says Tim. “The question now is whether that can be maintained and has the value been recognised by those who were previously ambivalent?”

“Not all pharma was adequately digitally savvy,” says Heather, “I’d even suggest that some are still trying to put all the requisite pieces together. There is obviously the tech stack, but how it integrates with the business – both people and culture – requires some alignment and engagement with all stakeholders within the business at all levels. I’m working with different companies across different geographies now – they’re not as digitally savvy as the technology that they’ve bought enables them to be. It’s as simple as that. Some of them had the capability to be able to switch and pivot over to a digital, virtual interaction. However, not all of them did, and while some have started, others still haven’t got anything in place for the new world that they face.”

Pandemic shifts

In the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors’ engagement needs underwent a stark inversion from a majority of face-to-face contact with the industry to online channels taking its place. While this has been frequently discussed, M3’s research reveals just how complete that switch was.

Surveying the same group of European doctors in relation to an ‘early pandemic’ timeframe of April to June 2020, M3 found that around 70% spent 90% or more of their time interacting with pharma via online communications.

“The numbers present a defining picture for that time,” says Maxim. “The historic face-to-face model of engagement was replaced by an overwhelmingly remote model, as physical meetings changed to phone and video calls, emails, etc.”

Furthermore, it took more time than was generally expected for things to begin to adjust from that new extreme. Tim explains: “Probably 9 to 12 months ago we were talking to people in the industry who were telling us they were planning to get their field representatives and MSLs back out in the field and return to what you would class as the old, face-to-face commercial model. Clearly, when wave two hit, it was very clear that that’s not going to happen.”

What did happen was that the stark, early inversion of engagement preferences slowly began to settle into a more nuanced, varied picture. In fact, when it comes to doctors’ future intentions for how they want to engage with pharma personnel, there’s a fairly even split between all the online and face-to-face combinations.

Maxim says: “The research shows that, going forward, there will be a much larger variation in how doctors engage with pharma – from all face-to-face, to all remote, to everything in between. The onus is on pharma to adapt to their customers’ needs by ensuring that they can deliver the right content, at the right time, via the right channel, to the right customer.”

In addition to resourcing adequately to meet doctors’ changing engagement preferences, another learning is that the initially higher levels of digital interactions seen during the acute phase of the pandemic have set the scene for the future.

Looking to this, Heather says: “As a general population now, we all deal with many different channels simultaneously. We’re on online platforms, websites, Facebook groups, social media and so on. If you’re truly going to be a communicator or marketer, you need to deliver engagement and orchestrate them in a seamless way. Pharma had played with that idea before, but they really need to implement it.”

A changing future

To achieve this future vision of working across multiple channels to meet the preferences of its audiences, pharma companies will have to leave behind pre-COVID-19 ways of working that all too often followed a one-size-fits-all approach.

Maxim says: “The status quo has been challenged, and it looks like there is a reinvigorated motivation for a meaningful and lasting change. If this is the case, this will be a very, very different way for the system to operate, and will require a different operational approach.”

Part of this new way of working will include balancing pharma’s own proprietary distribution channels with those of partners. Companies will also need to think about all the different types of ways they can interact with doctors, including bolstering engagement through the use of paid and earned media,’’ says Heather.

“Pharma companies need to look at the pull versus the push and ask themselves, ‘what can they do in their own proprietary distribution channels and how can they partner with other people where necessary’. In addition to being present where doctors go to seek information, the next thing to look at is how do companies then put the patient at the centre, and really mean it – because everything now is about that,” she adds.

Another long-term issue, even before COVID-19, was being able to directly contact doctors in a compliant manner, which in an online setting requires e-permissions to be secured for a trusted environment.

Tim says: “One such way that pharma is able to engage with doctors is through the use of third-party channels, such as M3’s global communities of doctors. M3 are ideally positioned to partner with pharma in both content development and as a method of dissemination to over six million doctors.

“When we do get to the end of COVID-19, or at least get back to a sense of normality, what doctors are looking for from interactions will challenge pharma to always give due consideration to all the options available to them in an informed manner. The conversations that we’re having are about taking more of a hybrid, omnichannel approach, and then carefully considering all the different customer journeys within that.”

Engagement lessons

One of the key lessons from all of these changes it that now, more than ever before, pharma must operate across a number of different channels to ensure that every engagement is on doctors’ own terms. As companies work their way through their strategy planning processes, recent experiences have shown the need to plan for all contingencies, which includes having sufficient mechanisms to continue to engage doctors should further lockdowns or similar restrictions occur.

Maxim says: “Going forward, it is likely that hybrid, adaptive, omnichannel approaches will be most successful – and for that the system needs to be able to cater to the full range of doctors’ engagement preferences.”
In addition, with the rapid increase in the number of communication platforms to allow pharma to interact with doctors, firms have to be good at them all.

“Pharma needs to think about the experience the customer has, and companies need to start thinking about how they craft an experience for their customer that is simple, interesting and consumable,” says Heather.

Doctors want a certain level of virtual interaction, though exactly how much will vary by individual. However, it is clear that, for pharma, digital engagement is here to stay.

About the interviewees

Tim Russell

Tim Russell is an experienced international marketer. He has spent over 20 years in the pharmaceutical industry. For the last five years he has worked for M3, connecting clients with doctors in its online communities. He is passionate about offering compelling solutions that meet clients’ commercial objectives and offer clear and tangible value.


Heather Hancock holds an MBA and studied Biochemistry and Chemistry at University. She is managing director of pharma consulting firm DigitalFutureway, specialising in behavioural change through data analytics and insights. She has a wide background in healthcare and was previously business and commercial operations director of MSD in the UK. Heather has 20 years’ experience within the healthcare industry across multiple sectors including private hospital operations and business development, and a variety of European and international markets.


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.

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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