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Engaging with Physicians and Patients in a Changing World

Happy New Year

In the constantly changing world of healthcare provision, two major themes have been emerging, both of which are interconnected: digitization of healthcare services; and a switch in the traditional model of healthcare from a reactive to a preventive approach.

The Digital World

After years of failed initiatives, programmes to digitize health services are now taking off in several countries and pharmaceutical companies will have to adapt to the impact the new technologies will have on the behaviour of their customers. In a world where it has become difficult for company sales people to gain direct contact with doctors, digital looks like changing the way pharma engages with health professionals.

A recent McKinsey Report – Medical affairs: Key imperatives for engaging and educating physicians in a digital world – highlights findings in the US indicating that 81% of physicians are dissatisfied with their interactions with biopharmaceutical companies, and over 40% no longer perceive a “need” for medical support from pharma.

Despite findings such as these and continuing discussion of how digital can transform customer engagement, McKinsey research on adoption of digital technologies by medical affairs teams at biopharmaceutical companies in the US found that:

  • 50% of biopharmaceutical companies saw their digital strategy as “conservative” – i.e. preferring face-to-face interaction with limited use of new technologies.

  • 40% supported the ‘status quo’— i.e. providing sales teams with basic tablet technology, building customer tools, and slowly moving to virtual formats.

  • Only 10% said they were ‘investors’ in digital – i.e. supporting tools that enable real-time exchange between corporate headquarters and sales teams or facilitating immediate access to information for customers,and moving relationships into virtual formats.

However, physicians also complained about being bombarded by generic digital information. They would prefer more personalised, targeted and user-friendly information (e.g. short videos) and more unbiased digital content. Clearly there is some way to go before the digital revolution can facilitate effective engagement with pharma’s physician customers.


At the same time, new technologies such as wearable devices are empowering patients, and pharma firms are exploring the use of information collected through wearables for R&D (notably clinical trials), assessing patient compliance and to gather real-time, real-world data, for example. Patients have not been slow to gravitate towards digital, with many carrying out online research before a doctor visit, and doctors are now less ready to dismiss this (in fact it is not unusual to see a GP Google a patient’s symptoms during a consultation).

Wearable technology is also encouraging patient engagement with their own health needs, a trend likely to continue as the number of connected wearable devices worldwide is expected to jump from 526 million in 2016 to over 1.1 billion in 2022, according to Statista. Several pharma firms have been working on the use of wearables to monitor diseases – for example, Pfizer for Parkinson’s disease, and Abbott with Novo Nordisk for diabetes.

Prevention Rather Than Cure

‘Prevention rather than cure’ was the main message from the UK’s new Health Secretary Matt Hancock when he set out his long-term vision for the National Health Service in November 2018. The aim is to give people “five more years of healthy, independent life by 2035”. Local authorities (councils) have piloted incentive schemes to motivate people to change unhealthy lifestyles, including cash rewards for weight loss in obese people. Primary care providers are required to provide preventive as well as curative services, with the general practitioner (GP) contract incentivising doctors to target diseases identified in government prevention programmes. Personal responsibility will also be encouraged.

Examples of projects in the pipeline include a Verily and MSD-backed initiative that will use predictive analyses to identify patients at risk of serious conditions, such as heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), using telehealth technologies.

In the Netherlands, where the government is investing €170 million over 2017-2021 for preventive care and promotion of healthier lifestyles, the basic health insurance package is to be expanded to cover expert advice to help people develop a healthy lifestyle. Practitioners who specialize in ‘combined lifestyle interventions’ will be able to bill health insurers for their work in this area.

Increased emphasis on prevention will offer opportunities for companies to engage with healthcare providers and patients in ‘wellness’ programmes promoting healthy lifestyles linked to disease areas such as diabetes, hypertension, mental health and obesity. As consumers gain more control over their own health and wellness decisions, pharma firms need to be seen as partners in healthcare rather than simply medicine providers. For example, they can put more emphasis on the preventive benefits of therapies along with supportive healthy lifestyle and wellness programmes.

Digital Technology for Prevention

Digital technology will have a part to play in the shift to preventive care. The role of wearables in gathering patient-generated data was highlighted in a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2018, which centred on technological breakthroughs that enable healthcare systems to move from reactive to preventive care. At the panel discussion, Nokia’s CEO Rajeev Suri saw the future of preventive care as patient-centred in a world where wearables will go beyond existing fitness trackers to devices that clinically monitor heart rate, blood pressure, and other vital signs. Nokia is working on non-invasive wearable sensory devices that can continually monitor the human body.

The sharp rise in the incidence of diabetes has prompted the development of wearables that will not only monitor blood glucose but will also detect the disease before it develops. Apple and Google, for example, are among those developing a range of wearables that include smart watches, wristbands, dermal patches and footwear.


Health and wellness apps will also encourage a patient-centric approach. These will not only come from commercial organisations – an NHS app has recently been launched in the UK which enables patients to check their symptoms and, if their GP is connected, book and manage appointments, view their medical records, chose whether the NHS can use their data, etc. In the Netherlands, the government aimed by this year to enable 75% of those with chronic illness and also the vulnerable elderly to monitor certain aspects of their own health (e.g. blood pressure and cholesterol levels) and share the data with their health provider. Also, the Dutch health insurer Menzis has recently launched a mobile health platform including apps aimed at encouraging healthy lifestyles.

While there will be regulatory, reliability and trust issues to be addressed, digital approaches that include wearables, apps and virtual care (video consultations with health professionals) will become more common, offering alternative ways for pharma companies to engage with healthcare providers and consumers and to participate in new models of preventive care.

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