Taking the plunge into digital

Medical affairs is starting to expand its knowledge, reach and engagement with digital tools

There are so many opportunities for medical affairs to harness the potential of digital tools it’s hard to know where to start.

Virtual meetings, cloud-based data sharing and mass intelligence gathering on patients and HCPs are some of the most obvious opportunities. Multiple online, social and other media meanwhile can transform the ability of medical affairs to help healthcare providers and patients find the information they need, when they need it, in the form they need it.

But these are early days, and it’s hardly controversial to say that medical affairs is still generally only taking baby steps in digital. Christopher Keenan, Head of Medical Customer Engagement at BMS, puts it more bluntly: “Pharma is fifteen years behind the curve on innovation generally other than medicine, and medical affairs is even further behind when it comes to digital.”

Working out where to begin with the many opportunities in digital with limited knowledge and often limited budgets may make the task of digital transformation daunting, but some initiatives can be relatively straightforward to implement.

Simple first steps

Sharing documents, team collaboration and insight sharing can all be transformed with relative ease by software and cloud solutions that have been adopted in other parts of the organisation and which medical affairs is only now getting to grips with.

“We still have not mastered many of the simple technologies yet,” says Dr Eddie Guzdar, Medical Head of the Neurology Franchise for Sanofi Genzyme UK and Ireland.

Webinars, video conferencing and other digital tools enable pharma to convene virtual meetings or even blend the physical meetings with virtual live streaming, greatly increasing their global reach. This enables healthcare professionals across geographies to gain access to the latest information at their convenience. Instead of convening groups of people from across the world for for conferences or advisory boards, some of these can be routinely done digitally instead.

Harnessing Zoom video conferencing tools for internal and external group meetings is a good example of how a well-established technology can save time and effort with little difficulty when it comes to adoption, says Guzdar.

“Our use of Zoom for meetings and webinars has been transformational internally. People are travelling less. However, there are still huge opportunities in terms of using these tools for external engagement. Clinicians are busy. They don’t want to book 30 minutes to see people and there is a big opportunity to engage with them here, for example by bringing clinicians from across the country together for ‘virtual’ meetings. “We do it internally already. We ran a training session for our field teams through Zoom recently. Normally bringing our field teams into the office would have been a huge exercise."

Digitising medical education talks and posting them to relevant digital channels is already resulting in far less time touring speakers around the world in person. The content becomes everlasting and can also be reused for internal training. The benefits include greater reach, more efficient use of time and financial savings.

The means to do all this is well established and is already in routine use in some parts of the world. In China, webinars as well as live broadcasts with recordings available at any time afterwards are common.

In China, medical affairs at Merck is using WeChat, the local equivalent of What’s App, as an increasingly important and valuable information channel for medical education. WeChat has significant reach in a country where adoption of chat apps on mobile phones is now mainstream.

It is a clear indication of the direction of travel away from books and printed material and away from desktop computers to tablets and smartphones when it comes to accessing medical information. “There is a clear need to learn more about customers and their preferred digital tools,” says Daniel Ruzicka, Executive Director Medical Affairs at MSD KK.

Intelligence gathering

In fact there is a great deal to be learned about the stakeholders medical affairs serves by using digital tools.

Social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, offer the chance to better understand what every category of stakeholder in the healthcare industry is thinking, from payers and healthcare providers to patients and physicians.

These can be used, for example, to explore what terms HCPs or patients are searching for online. Medical affairs can gather and assess a wide array of such insights with speed and ease, in some cases using automation and AI tools that can be used to enable social media listening at scale.

Not every implementation of digital listening tools needs use cutting edge digital tools to be effective either. For example, relatively straightforward keyword analysis can be used to enhance quality programmes, providing 100% sampling by triggering evaluations based on certain words. This approach promises a vast improvement on the random sampling of the hundreds of thousands of engagements a large pharma business will take part in during the course of year.

Educating, engaging, activating

Digital tools have great utility for helping provide better and more engaging content that patients can use to educate themselves, for example downloadable apps or videos to show them how to use medical devices, or provide clarity on dosage and adherence-related questions they may have. Pharma can deploy digital tools to deliver patient activation initiatives that can be tracked and measured via validated tools, an area of increasing importance.

Digital tools can also drive much deeper patient engagement, bringing together patients to share insights as part of a particular community. One example is Pfizer’s social media platform, called oneSCDvoice, for patients with sickle cell disease to help them educate themselves and to share insights.

On-demand education of physicians and HCPs is an area most medical affairs functions are already exploring and in some cases exploiting at scale already via web-based portals, reducing the need for HCPs to consult medical affairs by phone or face to face.

Tone and format: getting the balance right

Yet, while many pharma organisations are starting to digitise their educational and research content, what means they should use to share this information is still not always clear.

The twin challenge for pharma companies when it comes to educational content is making it available and attractive amongst a sea of competing material while avoiding crossing into commercial territory.

“There is so much educational material out there,” says Ruzicka. “The danger is you are just another source, so you need a USP. The question is how do you offer relevant education, which will keep customers on your site and also bring them back.”

Digital content needs to be designed and delivered to suit physicians’ busy lives and delivered in easy to digest chunks that helps them answer clinical questions quickly. Making content usable in different formats often in short, easy-to-digest chunks suits the digital age.

Smartphones are an increasingly important conduit for digital tools and as their use by HCPs increasingly eclipses that of laptops and computers, digital content that designed to be consumable on phones, particularly via apps is important.

Such activity is relatively novel inside medical affairs and making material user friendly is still a work in progress in many respects. “We don’t do it very well at the moment. In general HCPs view materials from promotion as inherently biased, which results in low click or visit rates, commercial team sometimes struggle to find sweet spots.” adds Ruzicka.

And while medical affairs may have good links with key scientific influencers it often lacks the means to reach the medical mainstream in hospitals and clinics, he says. “Overall we are in the early phases. We don’t know how to distribute material optimally.”

One clear way forward in overcoming the challenges of gaining reach with content that is trusted is to partner with scientific leaders who want to make it their mission to educate and then co-create content as they will then promote the content through their own channels.

Regulatory dilemmas

How to manage and distribute educational content is not the only dilemma facing medical affairs. Digital tools throw up a range of potential regulatory problems too. Pre-promotion activity is one example. With strict rules around what it can promote and how, medical affairs is held back in its ability to demonstrate the ways it can help HCPs. “There is ambiguity from health authorities on what we can do from a digitalisation perspective, what tools we can use and how we can engage,” says Ruzicka.

Libraries of information, such as off-label insights from inside pharma, are at HCP’s disposal and digital tools can help disseminate it but how to do this is not clear, adds Keenan. “It’s only available on a reactive basis and physicians don’t know it exists. The question is from a digital perspective how you transcend that.”

One initiative BMS is working on is enabling physicians to interact directly with its clinical database by partnering with third parties, such as PhactMI and Migateway (the European Medical Information Gateway), who can help more widely distribute information.

“We understand we can’t market our services but FACT MI can,” says Keenan. “They are a rated source of medical information and our data speaks for itself. Leveraging that relationship enables us to deliver information at the point of care.”

Generating and capturing insights at scale

A further challenge for medical affairs when it comes to making the most of digital tools, is collecting its insights coherently so they can be harnessed to their full potential.

Information of all kinds is obtained via people from across the organisation including: field teams talking to doctors, attendance at congresses, product related queries received and competitor secondary data analysis.

Unfortunately this wealth of valuable information is not commonly gathered and analysed in one place where it can be used to generate new kinds of insights. The technology already exists for a simple, streamlined digital platform that enables different teams to capture the most important reports and other information they think is worth sharing.

Such a system would serve as the engine that enables a more agile approach that achieves improvements and innovation in less time. “One of the things we do quite well in medical affairs is developing insights. Can we use digital tools to structure those insights better? It’s not complex and I think that would add a lot of value to the business and showcase the value of medical affairs,” says Guzdar.

The challenge here is not technological, he adds. “There are tools out there to do this. They do not even have to be pharma specific. CRM systems are meant to do this but don’t. The dissemination piece is missing.”

It’s not controversial to say that medical affairs is in the early stages of its digital journey. But Keenan adds that while medical affairs has been slow to adopt the latest innovations in digital, it would be wrong to assume that this is beyond the sharp and analytical minds working within it. “Nobody has a greater potential to innovate. Take the passion and energy that is so evident in medical research and channel it into digital tools and we can achieve so much.”