It’s time to rethink the physician-pharma relationship

The traditional sales channel for the pharmaceutical industry has centered on face-to-face interaction with its core target audience – prescribing physicians. What happens when suddenly that form of interaction is taken away? Michael Brandreth, group vice president at WebMD Global, tells us how the events of the last 18 months make it more important than ever for pharma to reimagine how to reach its base in a new, more holistic way.

Physicians’ time has become a valuable commodity due to the pandemic. Brandreth says some, but not all, pharma marketers recognise there’s been a shift in how its audience wants to engage with the industry.

“Physicians are incredibly time poor because they have such a challenging work environment. When they do engage with the pharmaceutical industry, they increasingly want to do it on their own terms,” says Brandreth.

Indeed, the number of physicians seeking clinical information from independent websites is growing. According to a recent Medscape survey of over 5,500 physicians in the EU found 86% had increased their consumption of medical content online during the pandemic.

The survey findings are a further reminder that utilising the digital channels physicians choose to frequent can help pharma effectively connect with its target customers, as well as offering a way to take a personalised and data-driven approach.

Customer-centricity means relinquishing control

“Our pharma clients have benefited from adjusting their approach and focusing more on what customer centricity really means to their audience,” says Brandreth. “This involves a leap of faith, partly relinquishing control and recognising that engagement doesn’t have to be purely on pharma’s terms.”

Research done by McKinsey and Company indicates that after COVID-19, physicians don’t expect their in-person relationships with pharma reps to return to pre-pandemic levels, and Accenture found that only 10% ‘want’ to go back to pre-COVID norms for in-person meetings.

We’re at a crossroads, which has been accelerated by COVID. Pharma now has the opportunity to show it’s serious about not reducing the increased investment made in digital solutions, and not losing the progress accelerated by the events of the past 18 months.

“If pharma doesn’t recognise the way physicians want to engage with them and the shift that’s occurring, they won’t see as much success in the digital environment,” says Brandreth.

Another issue Brandreth raises is the constant chasing of email consents for pharma.

“When Medscape comes in contact with clients who say the objective of a campaign is to gather email consents, the question arises as to why?” Brandreth states.

“Often the answer is because the client would like visits to their pharma website and to own all subsequent data points, but that may not be the best way to facilitate engagement,” says Brandreth. “Physicians are much more likely to engage when content is delivered via independent and trusted sources they already have a relationship with.”

Nearly half (43%) of physicians indicated in the recent Medscape EU Physician Survey that the volume of emails and outreach from pharma is currently too high, whereas a recent study by Clarivate indicated that third-party websites for HCP audiences has a higher impact and influence on clinical decision-making than pharma owned and operated websites.

“Medscape’s research also shows independent websites for HCP’s are seen as more credible and trustworthy destinations than pharma-owned properties,” says Brandreth.

Pharma needs to bring value to the physician and acknowledge the physician’s time is valuable by providing high-quality personalized content on platforms physicians trust.

Approaching physicians differently

Understanding that not all physicians are created equal in terms of how they behave online is vital to successful engagement. HCPs have different preferences, learning styles, attention spans and levels of time pressure and pharma can take advantage of third-party websites and their strategies for engagement to help address these differences.

Pharma can also consider the Amazon analogy as an example – consumers and physicians are more likely to gather the information they need from one place, rather than several.

“The majority of physicians don’t wake up and think about going to one or more pharma websites. They want to go to one place where they can see what’s happening with several companies across the whole healthcare environment,” says Brandreth.

Historically, the most common forms of face-to-face interaction between pharma and its target audience was via a sales rep or medical conference, which pharma has understandably tried to replicate in the digital space due to COVID.

However, Medscape has found that an experience that is specifically constructed for online channels can be equal to, or even more effective than, one that involves a rep, especially when that experience is personalised for its audience.

“Medscape has over 25 years of experience running successful campaigns globally and has developed a proprietary Brand Impact Formula to drive maximum behavioural impact,” Brandreth states.

“Based upon a set of proven customer journey and UX principles, it helps dictate how different elements, like content and format types, should fit together and how they should be delivered within a thoughtfully constructed strategy across varies channels (the most successful strategies are considered on a long-term basis not just within a short-term annual brand planning cycle).”

Embrace technology to strengthen communication

Knowing what’s important to one’s target audience is paramount, and information around what physicians are thinking about can be obtained on third-party platforms.

“Medscape has a peer-to-peer social platform called Medscape Consult where members can interact, ask questions and share clinical best practices. Users are discussing what’s important to them and it can help pharma get better at understanding basic needs from a grass-roots perspective,” Brandreth says.

“The fact that it’s not that common for physicians to discuss actual brands may be of surprise to the industry, which has historically operated in brand-led silos.”

By leveraging third-party platforms, pharma can drive scale more effectively and rapidly online. This does not mean it will always be better than a good quality face-to-face interaction, but companies can simply drive more calls through digital platforms, and if the industry gets better at harmonising synergies within these channels, it will ultimately see a better return on investment.

“Think about the clinical journey that your target doctor is on, on a daily basis, and integrate your message(s) within that journey. Engage with your customer base where they already reside.”

“The principle of optimisation is too often paid lip service,” says Brandreth. “It has to underpin everything, and more time should be dedicated to observing and learning from behaviours and journeys. Understanding what works, what doesn’t work and what drives behaviour over a sustained period is key.”

“Targeting and measurement capabilities are constantly evolving, yet pharma is still behind the consumer world in terms of the appetite to take advantage of newer methods and approaches. This is why Medscape pays close attention in this area and has developed innovative targeting solutions through Machine Learning to enhance pharma’s ability to engage the right target doctor, at the right time.”

Planning and working with third-party channels on a multi-year basis and strategising how to deliver that message based on behavioural signals can continuously improve a company’s reach and message effectiveness.

Take risks to reap rewards

Before the pandemic hit, Brandreth says, access for reps was generally decreasing. “The healthcare environment will be one of the last to open up fully, and, at this time, it’s hard to imagine an army of sales reps being allowed en masse back into the hospital setting,” Brandreth states.

“As access continues to decline, digital budgets will inevitably need to increase. Companies that understand the online journey of their audience, where third-party websites fit in this journey and the value of supporting doctors along the whole treatment pathway will be at an advantage.”

Increasing demand for digital engagement presents an enormous opportunity for pharma, but one that will require an attitudinal and organisational shift. The more pharma invests in a true customer-centric experience and in making things easier for the physician, the more likely it will succeed in its ultimate objective – improving patient outcomes.

About the interviewee

Michael Brandreth

Michael Brandreth is group vice president at WebMD Global and has been helping brands in the FMCG, financial services and healthcare sector deliver behavioural change through digital channels for over 20 years.

About Medscape / WebMD


WebMD is the world’s leading provider of health information services, serving patients, healthcare professionals and employers through a number of public and private online portals. Part of WebMD, The Medscape Professional Network is the leading HCP platform for physicians worldwide and includes properties such as Medscape, Medscape Education, Univadis, coliquio, MediQuality and MGP.

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