17 August 2020

Has COVID-19 Indefinitely Disrupted the Pharma Sales Model?

Unlike many other industries, where significant job cuts have been made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Pharma has, so far, weathered the storm. This includes the field force, which since March has been more virtual than field. The pandemic has, and will continue to have, a considerable impact on how pharma interacts with their customers.

In March as the pandemic gained momentum in Europe and the US, medical congresses were one of the first big disruptions to the pharma sales model. Conference organisers were also forced to respond and were faced with a difficult choice: cancel or find alternative means to proceed? As the pandemic has continued and travel remains limited more and more organisers are proceeding with a ‘virtual’ format, hosting not only symposia talks but industry exhibition booths and meetings virtually. From an exhibition booth perspective, the virtual format does limit the quality of interactions between reps, MSLs and physicians. However, the format is attracting a wider audience with physicians who were limited by the cost or inconvenience of travel now being able to readily access content. ASCO, for example, saw attendee number soar far beyond the capacity of the in-person Chicago McCormick Centre venue. While the 2021 model of medical congresses remains unclear, at least moving forwards we are likely to see more organisers adopt a hybrid model.

From a clinical outlook, COVID-19 has forced physician-patient consultations to move to a remote model. While tele-health and remote video consultations are not new, up until lockdown they had also not been widely utilised. Critics, even 9 months ago, would highlight problems with IT infrastructure and potential gaps in physical examination as un-moveable barriers to adoption. And whilst for some conditions the face to face model is required, for many chronic conditions a remote consultation is both time and resource effective. We expect the fundamental clinical care model to evolve, and as such physicians will expect their industry interactions to evolve too.

As some healthcare systems start to open up the question of when, where and how to reengage physicians in-person will need careful attention. The landscape does remain and will likely continue in the short-to-mid-term to be uneven, as health systems open up at differing rates. Clinics are expected to face a surge in appointments as a backlog of undiagnosed and under-treated patients, who were unable to access services during the pandemic, start to reengage with the healthcare system. This will require the right level of sensitivity as well as a greater focus on localised health systems to personalise approach for digital vs in-person engagements.

Beyond the near-term navigation of re-opening healthcare systems, brand teams will need to consider the interaction of in-person and remote onboarding and marketing support. A careful mix of modalities modified by geography, specialty and setting will be required. Ultimately, to succeed in the new ‘normal’, especially during the launch phase of a drug where traditionally face to face meetings with sales reps were relied upon, pharma now needs to be more agile, flexible and creative. COVID-19 will undoubtedly change how both physicians interact with their patients, but also how physicians want to interact with industry. The winners here will be those who can adapt the fastest, see new opportunities to build in and adopt technology to engage their customers.