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The new sales and medical balance in the COVID-19 world

Health Industry Hub | September 16, 2020 |

Australian pharma’s field force roles are evolving and the new digital environment is driving a need for new approaches in line with the COVID-19 world.

In a recent interview with Reuters Events, Matthew Britland, VP of the Australian Pharmaceutical medical and scientific Professionals Association (APPA) said “It’s changed everything, but the medical and sales models were looking for an overhaul.”

“It’s given medical leaders a unique opportunity to demonstrate the value of medical affairs on a magnitude we’ve never seen before. Medical affairs really used to be almost a supportive function to the organisation and I think people have realised it’s now a fundamental division, a trusted partner.”

Is there a shift from commercial to medical?

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COVID-19 has accelerated the shift in how pharma is engaging with healthcare professionals (HCPs), professional organisations and patient advocacy groups in Australia from a commercial to more of a medical footing.

A recent global survey sought to understand how 720 HCP’s practices and needs changed during COVID-19.

The results indicated the following changes:

  1. Physical access is limited and is expected to stay that way.
  2. Sales rep meetings with HCPs have shifted from in-person to virtual meetings.
  3. Sales reps are communicating more, but struggling to be relevant.
  4. HCPs want the human connection with sales reps in the future, but in different ways.
  5. Virtual doctors will emerge as new influencers in patient treatment and a new focus for pharma rep engagement.

Some medical colleagues suggest that the shift from commercial to medical may be due to the more complex medicines being developed and launched, such as monoclonal antibodies, biologics, anti-cancer drugs and gene-based therapies to treat rare diseases. These are areas which may be more challenging for some sales reps to engage in with a HCP.

According to Sophie Hibburd, Director, Ethics and Compliance at Medicines Australia who spoke to Reuters Events “There is still a need for industry to own the narrative about the products that they create.”

“We’ve received feedback from HCPs individually and through our kindred organisations that the sales rep plays an important role in providing valuable and timely information,” she said. “In an HCP’s six-minute consultation cycle, they need to have different sources of information and it is still a very valuable bite-sized snapshot of information.”

Bringing added value in digital communication

A shift to a virtual model of communication means that pharma sales reps and medical teams have to provide more value to HCPs to gain an appointment.

One scenario may be the opportunity for MSLs to involve the broader medical team such as medical managers, medical directors or international colleagues on the virtual call to enhance the value of the interaction for the HCP.

This may work similarly for the commercial team in collaborating with marketing colleagues in bringing a more valued agenda to the HCP during the virtual call.

Understanding and planning for how HCPs and other stakeholders are now targeted and how new competencies and skills must be embedded requires a thoughtful and collaborative approach.

As the move to telehealth gathers pace, new engagement strategies will be needed for virtual doctors who may choose to engage with pharma teams virtually, on an ongoing basis, instead of face to face.

What about soft skills?

The current digital environment has made it relevant to enhance and balance communication skills, emotional intelligence and business acumen.

In the global survey referred to earlier, 57% of HCPs said pharma sales reps are failing to understand the real impact of COVID-19 on them. Sales reps need to recognise and respect the unprecedented human impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and its implications of delayed treatments and ongoing mental health challenges.

It is more challenging to pick up specific cues from HCPs on a virtual call compared to a face to face call.

It is essential for commercial and medical teams to boost their professional development in these areas to be able to maintain engagement with HCPs.

Will COVID-19 facilitate a new sales and medical balance?

Feedback from several companies suggests that medical teams have been better able to engage and add value to HCPs, compared to sales teams, during the reduction of field force contact in the COVID-19 world.

If this is in fact true for most pharma companies, then:

  • How can companies evolve the sales team roles to boost more meaningful customer engagement strategies?
  • How can companies upskill the sales team on how to use digital and data in engaging with their customers in a more personalised way?
  • What will the new sales rep capabilities and skills look like to ensure a high customer engagement?

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