5 Important AI Discoveries Generated by COVID-19

March 26, 2021

Contributed Commentary By James Anderson and Bruce Carlson 

March 26, 2021 | Eva Hadzipetrova, a 15-year-old UNICEF reporter recently wrote, “When COVID is over, the earth will continue to spin. The question is whether we will have learned a lesson.”

Already, as millions of people scramble for their turn at their COVID-19 vaccine, leaders are outlining the learnings to move forward…possibly stronger, wiser, and better than before. For instance, the life sciences industry’s reputation is rising as its scientists who developed an effective vaccine with unprecedented speed are rightfully counted among the many heroes of 2020. Even before the vaccines were announced, 40% of Americans said that pharma’s reputation was improving. 

The pandemic also seemed to shock industry executives out of autopilot for the first time in decades, causing them to take stock in how their businesses operate both from a process standpoint and a philosophical perspective. Novartis, for instance, double-downed on its digital transformation by inking key partnerships with Microsoft and Amazon. All told, the introspection and resulting learnings create optimism for industrywide transformation across all areas of the business, from clinical to commercial.

Here are five important takeaways to consider for 2021:


Lesson #1: The “Super-Size It” Commercial Model No Longer Works

The pharmaceutical sales force has been slowly dwindling since its heyday in the late-90s. The industry’s shift away from blockbuster primary care markets to niche specialty care markets has meant that fewer reps are needed to liaise with HCPs. Today, there are about 60,000 pharmaceutical sales reps in the U.S., down from 100,000 in the mid-2000s. Amgen, for instance, just announced cutting “several hundred jobs, primarily affecting the U.S. sales force.” And with the number of physicians seeing sales reps in person still declining—from 67% in 2018 to 54% in 2019—reps’ visible impact is diminishing as other promotional options gain traction.

Rather than throwing more reps at physicians, the industry realizes it’s time for more strategic engagement as oversized sales teams are not necessarily any more effective than lean teams empowered by smart digital technologies. The increased adoption of AI and machine learning has further shown how right-sized sales teams equipped with advanced predictive analytics tools can be as effective, or more so, as armies of foot soldiers.

Less can also mean more with AI. Big data has fueled the AI revolution, but AI also derives reliable information from even smaller data sets to quickly separate the signal from the noise. The industry’s efforts to find a COVID-19 vaccine offers an example of this phenomenon: pharmaceutical companies were forced to conduct smaller clinical trials yet were able to develop multiple vaccines in record time that are up to 95% effective. This trend will only accelerate in years to come.


Lesson #2: Good Sales Reps and Medical Science Liaisons Still have the Respect of HCPs

With the number of sales reps decreasing, medical science liaisons (MSLs) as a source of scientific information for doctors are more important than ever. At the same time, the demands on reps to provide greater value have never been higher. The rush to go digital has reminded physicians of the importance of their connection with industry. For example, suddenly without their pipeline of drug information, 61% of HCPs began engaging with sales reps and MSLs for longer periods of time even if the frequency diminished, according to an Accenture Life Sciences survey. And, the average period physicians now spend in digital interactions with field teams is 19 minutes compared to the typical five or six minutes that reps used to snag in hospital hallways and in between patient visits. 

The field teams that understand the changing needs of HCPs and provide them with valuable information – rather than just spamming them with irrelevant content—continue to earn physicians’ respect. AI is key to keeping up with physicians’ needs, whether in person or online—and helps all reps become high performers. Post-pandemic, 87% of HCPs say they want to keep at least a combination of digital and in-person engagement as the primary interaction with the pharmaceutical world. 

“I see reps’ value in being the gateway or the liaison to that company,” explained Dr. Andrew J. Moore, the Medical Director at Southeast Missouri State Health Cancer Center, during a recent conference. “I think as providers, we all read the same high-impact journals so we know about the space in which we want to use a particular drug, but some of the more real-world applications can get buried in these articles. It’s nice to have reps act as quick resources there.”


Lesson #3: COVID’s Drive for Digital Means We Need More Content Now 

Aktana customers added nearly 50% more content from Q2/3 2019 to Q2/3 2020, particularly growing the number of email templates used to provide richer and more personalized engagement with HCPs. Additionally, the number of AI-driven suggestions for in-person meetings in February 2020 versus remote meetings in June flipped to mostly remote meetings proportionally. 

While digital provided a critical band-aid to enable continued engagement between the life sciences industry and the medical community, it also opened a wound that had already been festering: the need for more content. The speed and frequency of communication that digital has enabled has also created a chasm of compliant content. Further, with a seemingly endless demand for content, the industry needs to find a way to flexibly deploy existing content across multiple channels. 

As AI is embraced across more brands, more therapeutic areas, more geographic regions, and more organizations, it will turbo-charge the demands for content. Evolving consumer expectations and preferences around digital will also push the industry towards new content formats, such as a surge in personalized videos and AI-driven self-serve digital portals. Data will play a critical role in helping companies refine, iterate, and adapt their digital-first strategies for the future. 

Novartis’ AI-powered platform allowed the company to quickly pivot its commercial strategy and repurpose a portfolio of approved content for digital engagement. Even as face-to-face engagements fell nearly 97% from March to October 2020, Novartis increased their virtual meetings, and the average open rate of digital content increased significantly.


Lesson #4: Without a Doubt, AI Improves Digital Engagement with HCPs 

COVID-19 resulted in a dramatic increase in the volume and quality of digital engagements, thanks in part to AI-driven personalization strategies. For instance, Aktana customers saw a three-fold increase in rep-sent emails from Q2/Q3 2019 with a 14% higher open rate compared to the same time in 2020, despite the jump in volume. 

Email open rates in the pharmaceutical industry historically hover around 18%, according to Mail Chimp. Compare that to the high 45% open rate from AI-driven emails sent to HCPs from Aktana customers during the height of the pandemic. It is clear the impact that a data-driven approach to digital engagement—including personalized recommendations about when, who, and what to send—make a major difference in getting and keeping the attention of busy physicians. 

This is also a big reason why confidence in AI has grown so quickly in recent years. In its 2017 Analytic Brief, the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) reported that only 5% of all pharmaceutical companies were using AI. Two years later, a 2019 study published by Emerj showed that 50% of companies expect to see AI as a piece of digital engagement nearly ubiquitous throughout healthcare—including the pharmaceutical industry—by 2025.


Lesson #5: Omnichannel communication went from “nice to have” to “non-negotiable”

From the earliest phases of the pandemic, Aktana began to hear feedback from both life sciences companies and HCPs indicating that drastic changes needed to be made in terms of communication. Even before the arrival of COVID-19, HCPs frequently complained about overly aggressive outreach strategies from life sciences companies, referring to some outreach as spam. As hospitals became increasingly overburdened and physicians were stretched past reasonable expectations, frequent and tactless communication from pharma reps went from an annoyance to a source of real frustration. 

This new paradigm was one of the strongest possible endorsements of intelligent omnichannel strategy. With time becoming such a commodity for physicians, every member of a pharmaceutical commercial team as well as the medical affairs team needs to be aware of all communications occurring between their company and HCPs, regardless of the medium. This avoids overwhelming HCPs with excessive or redundant communications and avoids actions that may sour a relationship in the long term.

Moving forward, email will become the connective tissue between in-person interactions and new digital engagement methods such as remote meetings. This omnichannel model will create opportunities for reps to connect with customers that they have not spoken with for years. And, with newfound flexibility to engage HCPs on their terms and deliver personalized information, the industry will enter its greatest era of effectiveness and efficiency in serving its many customers.

COVID-19 has taught many lessons, including the need to change how we engage with physicians and patients. With the increased reliance on digital, HCP outreach needs to be thoughtful, efficient, and respectful. An AI-driven, omnichannel strategy makes this possible by giving every member of customer-facing teams visibility across communications. That said, not all pandemic adaptations will be permanent. Face-to-face interaction with HCPs still has its value—but by augmenting these interactions, life sciences companies can emerge from the rain of COVID to see a rainbow.


As vice president of services innovation, Bruce Carlson leads Aktana’s capabilities COE. Before joining Aktana, over his 25+ year career in the life sciences industry Bruce consulted to clients in over 40 countries on issues of commercial strategy, innovation, and execution. Prior, Bruce held various roles including COO of Giles & Associates, a boutique life sciences strategy firm, and senior principal at marketRx and subsequently Cognizant Technology Solutions. Bruce can be reached at bruce.carlson@aktana.com. 

As Chief Customer Officer, James Anderson focuses on ensuring consistent customer success and optimizing processes and services across Aktana deployments globally. An experienced leader, James has more than two decades of experience in the pharmaceutical industry. Previously, James was responsible for developing strategy and driving multichannel solutions for world-class brands at both ZS Associates and Merkle. He also spent 11 years at Bristol-Myers Squibb in sales, marketing, and engineering, and he was managing partner at two small businesses, including a successful startup. James can be reached at james.anderson@aktana.com.