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How can we tell what the Pharma industry will look like after the pandemic? Whose prediction should we trust? And why not just wait and see anyway? Imogen Brakspear writes about the danger of stagnation and why we should venture into the world of experimentation.

The way ahead is empty. Uncharted territory with no clear path and the threat of being swept off course.

Tech trends are accelerating

In 2017, 40% of all new relationships in the US began on a dating app1. Surely at the height of the pandemic, closer to 100% of new relationships were being started online?

The point being, even before the crisis we were willing to let tech into the most personal corners of our lives. But in recent months, tech trends have accelerated at a phenomenal speed.

And they have accelerated in every industry, across the board.

How is Pharma responding?

This phenomenon has thrust the usually fairly tech-stagnant healthcare industry into action.

Typically plagued by bureaucratic regulation and convoluted purchaser/user journeys, this is a slightly uncomfortable position for the unsuspecting industry to find itself in.

Many of the barriers to adopting tech have been lifted in an attempt to find solutions to physical restrictions at ‘pandemic speed’. While some organisations are continuing to quietly watch from the sidelines, others are wholeheartedly embracing the ‘next normal’, throwing themselves into the empty space ahead, defining new and creative ways of reaching the people that matter.

ASCO®20 (American Society of Clinical Oncology 2020 event) ‘going virtual’ is a confident move by a congress that usually sees footfall from 42,500 attendees. It follows in the wake of multiple others making this leap – a signal to the importance of keeping healthcare professionals (HCPs) connected to scientific progress in these uncertain times.

We’ve even seen some clinical trials moving to electronic data collection and management in an attempt to combat the very real threat to the pace and scope of R&D outside of COVID-19.

But what is the best move for an industry that’s used to sitting back and following in the slipstream of its consumer friends?

Migration has begun, but who do we follow?

Is it worth adopting tech and acting now?

Going back to the dating example (I’m a fan of obscure stats that tell important stories), we can’t predict what impact the crisis will have on online dating. Will it have permanently risen to a higher level than before, or will people be so averse to chatting up strangers over text and video call, that it plummets back to 2009 levels (20%)?1

What is happening now isn’t necessarily indicative of what will happen in the future.

So what can we learn from these examples if customer needs are constantly changing? Surely, it’s best to watch and wait until the dust has settled and customer needs have stopped shifting from beneath our feet?

But wait, aren’t they constantly shifting anyway?

Number 1

Customers need us now – not acting now is to do them a disservice

In recent months, the focus has been on battling COVID-19, and rightly so.

But it is now becoming apparent that the noise and panic of the crisis has drowned out the voices of those in the thick of it. While the media busily told the story of how those on the front line must be feeling, no one stopped to question whether this was the only story that needed telling.

This intense focus on COVID-19 in the healthcare arena has come at a cost.

Take oncology for instance:

The role of healthcare communication has changed. Yes, it might now be more about restoring and safeguarding ways of life, and less about delivering on cold, hard brand objectives. But health brands still have an obligation to find ways to reach doctors and patients; to pay attention and provide guidance, support and reassurance at a time when it’s needed more than ever.

Not listening, understanding, and taking action to meet these needs is not only doing a disservice to patients and doctors, but has bleak consequences for us all.

Number 2

Tech and pharma will become one – not acting now is to be left behind

We can already see a shift in sentiment about the future of communication:

From …“Is there a good reason to do this online?”

To…“Is there any good reason to do this in person?”

HCPs expect, and want, this shift to happen

Recent data show that HCPs are already rapidly adopting tech into their daily working practices, with at least half of patients currently being managed remotely3. As one clinician put it “Ironically, we are able to see more patients now even though we can’t actually see them”.

And when the COVID-19 outbreak finally abates, HCPs across all specialisms expect this new way of working to continue, with 77% supporting the shift toward telemedicine3. A view that market analysts clearly share, predicting an acceleration in this tech trend too4.

But the shift will also happen in other areas of medicine. 70% of Japanese HCPs believe the crisis will have a lasting impact on their willingness to welcome reps into their clinics5 with an expectation that these face-to-face meetings will shift to virtual meetings5.  

Updates Pending

Pharma has been hitting the ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’ button on its tech updates for far too long. And now there’s catching up to be done.

Putting off updates could cause an organisation to crash

As Benedict Evans (a great tech market analyst worth checking out) put it:

“There are decades when nothing happens, and then there are weeks when decades happen”

Tech-stagnant industries have been given an ultimatum: either accept this shiny new software update, or risk your software no longer being compatible (with your customer). Pharma has been catapulted forward and those brands that choose to retreat back to familiarity and ‘safety’ will be walking in the opposite direction to customer expectations and needs.

Number 3

Need for confidence – not acting now is to risk appearing unreliable

‘I’m just as terrified as my patients’ writes psychotherapist, Gary Greenberg. Never in his 35 years in practice has he had to face anything quite like this.6

Doctors are normal people too. They also look to the external world for signs of reassurance from which to gain confidence. Organisations that don’t show that they are listening, or that they are trusted to ‘do the right thing’ risk doing serious damage to their brand and opening up the floor to competitors.

Why we don’t want to go ‘back to normal’ anyway

This is an opportunity to do things differently, to make life better than it was before.

A recent study showed that 56% of people say their impression of pharmaceutical companies has positively increased during this crisis7. So, why would we want things to ‘bounce back’? Why turn down the opportunity to prove how instrumental we can be in creating a stronger and more dependable health system?

There are positive takeaways from the situation (and no, I’m not just talking about seeing Venus every night, as delightful as that is). I’m talking about the 11,000 fewer deaths from air pollution in Europe. The 6,000 fewer new cases of asthma in children and 600 fewer premature births8. Should we be flying to meetings and conferences after this is over? Is there no better alternative? A cheaper, quicker way that actually makes more sense? Can we justify the travel time to our place of work every day? Can we reconcile missing out on valuable family time? Do we even want to?

Consumer data from China and intentional surveys from the UK indicate that a ‘return to normality’ will be a gradual defrosting rather than a rapid boil back. So, yes, things will ‘calm down’ a bit. Tinder’s daily swipe rate of 3bn, reported last month9, will likely decrease when social distancing is lifted. But waiting for the world to ‘bounce back’ is to risk twiddling our thumbs for some time to come.

Or worse, we risk being left behind all together. And no one wants to have to run to catch up with the others (again).

So, we know we need to act now, but how? Where to start?

Instead of looking round for people to follow, look ahead. This is a period of experimentation. You can’t google the answer for this one.

Trial and error is being tolerated now more than ever before, even welcomed. People are open to trying out new tech and more forgiving of imperfect execution and operational glitches. Allowances are being made that would never normally be passable. Beta testing is being trialed on anyone and everyone. And that’s OK. In fact, people are happy to be part of it.

The usual barriers to innovation have been lifted, but that window is closing. Once the trailblazers start to get it right and have defined what ‘good’ looks like then experimentation could begin to look like failure.

The time to experiment is now. So get stuck in, try out that thing you didn’t quite have the confidence to execute last year and take control of molding the future you want to inhabit.

In our next blog post, we will talk about how to conduct that experiment and create customer-centric, effective, virtual experiences.

1Rosenfeld, M.J., Thomas, R.J. and Hausen, S., 2019. Disintermediating your friends: How online dating in the United States displaces other ways of meeting. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(36), pp.17753-17758.

2Banerjee, A., Pasea, L., Harris, S., Gonzalez-Izquierdo, A., Torralbo, A., Shallcross, L., Noursadeghi, M., Pillay, D., Pagel, C., Wong, W.K. and Langenberg, C., 2020. Estimating excess 1-year mortality from COVID-19 according to underlying conditions and age in England: a rapid analysis using NHS health records in 3.8 million adults. medRxiv.     

3Sermo. April 2020. COVID-19 HCP Sentiment Surveys, Part 1: Physician Engagement with Patients and Remote/Telehealth Experiences

4Lagasse, J. April 2020. COVID-19 may permanently alter the telehealth landscape, from reimbursement to utilization

5Sermo. April 2020. COVID-19 HCP Sentiment Surveys, Part 2: Physician Interactions with Medical Technology and Pharmaceutical Manufacturers

6Greenham, G. April 2020. Therapy under lockdown: ‘I’m just as terrified as my patients are’

7Strategy& PWC, May 2020. COVID-19: UK industry focus – Where next for pharma and life sciences?

8Myllyvirta, L., and Hubert Thieriot. 2020. 11,000 air pollution-related deaths avoided in Europe as coal, oil consumption plummet

9Knowles, K. April 2020. Coronavirus has changed dating apps “irreversibly”

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