Pharma Companies Poised To Go Digital, Starting With Field Reps

April 22, 2020

By Deborah Borfitz

April 22, 2020 | It often takes a tragedy to trigger change and for pharma companies that tend to be digitally averse, the catalyst may well be the COVID-19 pandemic. A comprehensive examination of pharma’s digital savvy released a year ago made plain that many of the industry’s biggest players aren’t using online and social media communications to their advantage. A few years ago, the experts at McKinsey & Company gave the industry a “Digital Quotient” score of 27 out of a possible 100—trailing the average across sectors, including other highly regulated businesses such as banking and insurance.

Certainly not all companies have been digital laggards, but none of them can afford to be now stay-at-home orders have been issued in virtually every state in the nation. This is particularly true when it comes to supporting the corporate sales force, which typically constitutes the single largest employee group, says Dan Rizzo, vice president of global business consulting at cloud-computing company Veeva Systems Inc.

To facilitate the shift in a time crunch, Veeva has created alliances with several of its partners to create a Digital Field Engagement offering that provides a customized roadmap for going “fully digital” in weeks. That includes best practices for leveraging remote meetings, virtual events and email as the primary way field reps connect with healthcare professionals at this time, Rizzo says.

Fully digital also means “leveraging solutions through which physicians can self-identify themselves to a company… [and] tell you they need certain resources such as patient assistance material or have a question about the efficacy or side effect profile of a new drug,” he continues. Additionally, it implies data-driven “team intelligence” about the next best level of engagement with individual customers.

Veeva is acting as the master coordinator of potentially needed technologies and services and some, including enterprise-level change management and the tax implications of engaging with customers across international borders, fall outside its wheelhouse, Rizzo says. Global consultant Accenture and multi-national accounting firm Deloitte are the only named partners, but several others are in the alliance.

“Tip of the Spear”

The Digital Field Engagement offering could be the steppingstone to more wide-ranging digital adoption by pharma companies, adding efficiencies to their marketing, R&D, and operational functions at corporate headquarters, says Rizzo. A shift to the digital remote model might well make key positions easier to fill with the best candidates by eliminating geography as a qualifying criterion.

“This is just the tip of the spear for the broader culture of an organization,” he says. Veeva is already in the process of setting up digital channels for companies to relay and submit information for regulatory compliance purposes. And since making free remote meeting software available earlier this month to clinical research sites, it has issued over 200,000 provisioned licenses.

Veeva is focused on enabling business continuity for pharmaceutical companies, both clinically and commercially, specifically for field teams—the face of pharma to healthcare providers. Their job is to meet with practitioners to introduce new drugs and provide educational materials, samples and information about patient assistance programs. Since they won’t be doing that in person in the immediate future, digital channels are the logical alternative for maintaining those relationships, Rizzo says.

The new program not only provides the technology but also the expertise to help pharma companies go digital quickly, Rizzo stresses, since making that transformation is “more important now than ever.”

During the engagement, Veeva promises to define the needed “roles, responsibilities, enabling processes, tools, data and training.” Customers get best practices for remote engagement and remote sampling using Veeva CRM Engage Meeting , which Rizzo describes as “facetiming with a healthcare professional in an integrated and compliant manner,” and sending compliant content with Veeva CRM Approved Email.

This is on top of the remote monitoring solution Veeva is giving away to pharma for six months, "no cost and no strings attached,” in recognition of the fact that thousands of field reps were suddenly and unexpectedly grounded by the pandemic, notes Rizzo.

Perhaps the most important component of Digital Field Engagement, and the only thing that is wholly new, is the customized implementation roadmap. In the first few weeks, what Rizzo terms the “enablement period,” Veeva will school companies on how to best use various technologies and adjust to new ways of working with their customers. The longer-term goal, he says, is to show companies how to work in a more coordinated, optimized way.

That includes a lot of training and change management and ensuring individuals know how to leverage information to become more strategic about how they engage with customers, says Rizzo. Companies may need to reconsider their customer segmentation approach or the way they pay their field reps based on the types of behavior they’re trying to elicit. The roadmap also addresses the kind of data needed to measure improvement and set appropriate goals.

The roadmap is “intentionally phased” to include steps the industry needs to take during the enablement period and what type of data they need—e.g., the rate of return on in-person visits and the customer experience when engaging digitally—to progress to that next set of solutions or initiatives, Rizzo says. “This is not a total departure from business as usual … pharma can decide how long or how far down that roadmap they go to realizing digital transformation.”

The reality is that having field reps meet face-to-face with customers virtually rather than traveling to do so is a more cost-efficient way of working, Rizzo says. The in-person model offers the highest level of engagement with healthcare professionals, but time constraints on both sides of the relationship make it impractical to carry out universally. The “hybrid approach” thus offers maximal reach.

The early response of life science companies to Digital Field Engagement has been largely positive, Rizzo says. For the most part, they’re not expecting social distancing to be a short-lived phenomenon so they’re looking to pivot. But if they’ve already committed internal resources to a digital changeover, they may only need certain components of the new offering rather than the entire package.