How hybrid virtual engagement is accelerating oncology communication

COVID has revolutionised the way pharma engages with healthcare stakeholders – but to be truly successful, digital engagement needs to move away from an overreliance on real-time meetings, say experts from Within3.

By making virtual meetings a necessity, COVID has forced pharma to adopt a more flexible, digitally-driven approach to stakeholder interaction – but in many ways the industry is still on the back foot when it comes to making the most of its engagement strategies.

“Pharma has been one of the last industries to move into digital,” says Natalie DiMambro, vice president of Learning and Development at Within3. “Before COVID, these companies were still mostly doing meetings in-person, just because they’d been doing it that way for decades.”

This is despite in-person meetings having many obvious drawbacks.

“Bringing a global group together is a massive undertaking – not only from a logistics point of view, but from a time point of view, a compliance point of view and a carbon footprint point of view,” says Sarah Diffen, senior director, client relationships lead at Within3. “Because of that, companies are under a lot of pressure to get a return on investment from these meetings.”

Video conferencing has addressed some of these challenges during COVID, but DiMambro points out that many of the same challenges will exist in a Zoom or Teams meeting as in a live in-person meeting.

“You still have to schedule everybody, you still have to control the environment and manage the discussion in a way that’s productive towards your goals. There are still many human aspects to consider.”

Luckily, things are starting to change, and companies are turning to more asynchronous and hybrid engagement approaches in order to allow for more flexibility and lower costs.

Asynchronous engagement involves participants interacting over the course of several days or weeks, usually on virtual platforms where they can provide insights in their own time.

These platforms can also allow participants to view and comment on documents, watch video resources, and use different rooms for different topics, among other functions.

DiMambro says that Within3, for example, has made sure to set up its platform “almost like a university course” where users can see the tasks they have to complete when they log in.

“Giving people a finite set of tasks to complete, a clear deadline and clear instructions can encourage them to provide insights much more quickly.”

Hybrid approaches, meanwhile, use a combination of real time engagement (such as live video calls) and asynchronous engagement.

DiMambro says that these strategies generally represent a more “thoughtful” approach to engagement.

“That means thinking about the goals of the engagement and fitting the medium to those goals. Maybe a certain project would work best as a three-month initiative where participants interact online once a month; maybe another would lend itself to regular Zoom calls with online interaction supplementing that.”

She adds: “When I was planning in-person live meetings in my previous roles, I was always constrained. I was only allowed a certain number of people, it had to be at an airport hotel, it had to be on a certain day, I had to deal with late-notice cancellations, etc.

“It was extremely stressful and my focus was never on the actual content of the meeting. It was always on all of these other aspects. Now, with asynchronous engagement, the focus has shifted back to the science itself, which is much more rewarding for everyone.”

The appeal from the advisors’ point of view is that these meetings can now be more respectful of their time.

“Many of these advisors are busy with patients, papers, or other speaking commitments,” says DiMambro. “An ad board might be low down on their list of priorities. Now they can be in a hospital when they participate in an ad board, and after 15 minutes they can return to their patients.

“Because of this, the advisors are always the first to adopt this approach – and clients then start to realise they are getting more feedback from more people.”

“These people want to share their opinion,” adds Dr Mike Abbadessa, PharmD, executive director, Medical Affairs at Within3. “They are experts in their field and they’re happy to engage, so you need to give them as many options as possible for doing so. Some will still want to engage face-to-face, of course, but the key is to be agile and have a flexible approach to engagement.”

Engagement accelerates cancer research

Being more agile and flexible can be particularly useful in areas like oncology, where the number of sub-specialities for specific cancers means there is often a limited number of HCPs a company can engage with, most of whom are particularly busy with patients.

“Because of that, your chances of getting them to come a long way in person are smaller,” says Abbadessa. “But with asynchronous engagement you can much more easily engage the right people at the right points in a drug’s lifecycle.”

This includes gathering KOLs from a wider range of countries.

“Especially in rarer cancers, oncologists’ experience is usually limited to what they see in their own regions,” says DiMambro.

“Now companies can more easily run sessions with people from all across the globe – with the virtual platform able to translate their words at the click of a button. Clients are thinking differently because they’re meeting people they usually would never have talked to.

“That, to me, is the future.”

Abbadessa adds that it’s also easier to bring in more allied oncology healthcare professionals like practice managers, nurses, and care coordinators, as well as patient advocates, and therefore get a more complete picture of what each group is thinking.

“It means you’re transparent across the whole oncology care team,” he says. “You’re holding everyone accountable with their roles, and you’re giving everyone equal time to get into the conversation. They can be more uninhibited online and in asynchronous situations, whereas in-person some people might be intimidated by speakers at a higher level to them.”

Within3 have found that, in general, asynchronous engagement encourages people who might not normally speak up to be more vocal.

“Previously people might have only invited speakers who were more talkative, which would input bias into the responses,” says Diffen.

“But in asynchronous engagement, it’s often the case that every single expert will answer every single question. The total word count of responses increases too. That’s something you wouldn’t necessarily see at a face-to-face meeting.”

Diffen adds that the overall quality of debate improves when people are able to edit themselves before and during discussions on virtual platforms and add in more citations and references (See side box).

“We’ve found that insights and engagement are so much deeper when you give people the time to think about the subject.

“I’ve organised ad boards in the past where we presented physicians with complicated data and expected them to process it in ten minutes. We were only getting their first impressions.”

One of the knock-on benefits from all these methods is the increased speed at which insights can be gathered – which in turn will accelerate treatment advances in areas like oncology.

“Previously, getting all the right people in the same room at the same time would take months of organisation,” says Diffen. “Now, taking compliance into account, we can begin engagement within a couple of weeks.

Asynchronous in action

Showing how asynchronous engagement can improve insights, Diffen highlights an example of a medical affairs team that wanted to engage a group of hematology and oncology specialists on various topics around a rare type of cancer.

The team held a three-part session, beginning with a one hour kickoff webcast to review key data and set expectations for the next part of the meeting. The team then launched a two week over-time session. Approximately half of the questions were open during the first week of the session, with the remaining questions released in the second week.

For some questions, resources such as PDFs were available in a secure viewer, so participants could review and consider before responding. After the conclusion of the two-week over-time session, a closing webcast provided the opportunity for participants to review areas of consensus and probe for more details.

Session moderators were highly engaged throughout the over-time session, and 100% of the contracted participants contributed to the discussion. The team met its stated objectives for the session.

“The combination of real-time with overtime is often really successful. The platform can capture all the feedback and insight in one place, allowing people to immediately view and act on it – whereas historically it would have taken days, if not weeks, to write up a report, making it difficult for advisors to cast their mind back to what happened.

“Now, we can be much more agile.”

Because of this, DiMambro says it’s important for platforms like Within3’s to be built with pharma complianceand security considerations in mind.

“With those security features built in, clients don’t have to worry about compliance and can go straight into focusing on the engagement.”

A more engaged future

As virtual, asynchronous engagement becomes increasingly vital for pharma’s engagement strategies, the benefits are spreading into other corners of the industry.

Abbadessa notes, for example, that MSL and medical affairs field teams interacting with HCPs can now more easily connect with their headquarters.

“Traditionally MSLs would connect KOLs with company medical directors at scientific congresses, but now they can do it online asynchronously, and more easily fit it around everyone’s schedules,” he says.

“They can also still take daily debriefs from congresses and connect them with headquarters, keeping them up to date with what’s actually happening at the event.

“COVID-19 has shown the industry the importance of staying connected even when the world is shut down, and platforms like this are really moving the needle on that.”

Abbadessa says that the potential of using data and technology to improve industry communication in this way is what drew him to the tech sector in the first place.

“When I was in hospital pharmacy the UPS guy had more technology than we did, and it drove me crazy. Now we can use these platforms to make things better for teams and, ultimately, for patients.”

While the wider industry can still sometimes be slow to adopt new tech, DiMambro says pharma is already seeing the benefits of these new approaches to engagement.

“When I’m working with clients who want to do a live ad board, I always ask them what their expectations actually are, and if there’s really anything they can only accomplish in-person.

“Tech can empower everyone in this space to make decisions based on what’s best for the goal versus just falling back on traditional approaches.

“People are going to become more discerning with their travel, so let’s make it count and make sure we’ve done the work online ahead of time. That way, when you end up in-person the meeting is about consensus or what wasn’t accomplished online. That’s a much better use of everyone’s time.”

Diffen adds that while face-to-face is unlikely to vanish completely once COVID restrictions are fully lifted, the variety of tools now available means that pharma can find the right engagement strategy for the right situation rather than taking the blanket approach it used in the past.

“People are humans; they like that in-person interaction. But people are also realising that we can achieve so much more virtually.

“We will likely all become more selective in what we do face-to-face and what we do online. Ultimately, the dominant model will be a combination of face-to-face, virtual real-time, and overtime discussion on platforms like Within3, where stakeholders can continue the conversation.”

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About the interviewees

Natalie DiMambro

Natalie DiMambro is vice president of Learning and Development at Within3. In this role, she develops and facilitates virtual live and on demand training programmes for Within3 team members. She also supports clients with strategic guidance and training to maximise effectiveness with the Within3 technology solutions offered.

Sarah Diffen

Sarah Diffen is senior director, client relationship lead at Within3. Sarah originally trained as a pharmacist but moved across into the pharma industry and then into medical communications, where she spent many years as the strategic and operational lead to clients across a wide variety of medical education programmes.

Mike Abbadessa

Mike Abbadessa is the executive director of medical affairs for rMarkBio. Mike has been a leader in healthcare and the pharma industry over the past 20 years. He began his career in acute care hospitals, as pharmacist, director and chief operating officer. He transitioned to pharma as an MSL, director of field teams, and then senior director of innovation/analytics for medical affairs at Takeda. After his career in pharma and before joining rMark, Mike expanded his knowledge of field medical’s success factors as a consultant for Tardis (Amplity) and various pharma companies.

About Within3


Within3 invented a better way for life sciences companies to have conversations with the people who matter most – from doctors to patients to payers, and more. Our virtual engagement platform gives stakeholders the freedom to communicate anytime, anywhere, on any device. With tools for meaningful discussions and a dedicated client success team on every project, most Within3 projects achieve 100% stakeholder participation.


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