How pharma can continue engaging HCPs in a world gripped by COVID-19

By George Underwood

April 9, 2020

Face-to-face interactions between pharma and physicians have essentially ceased overnight during the COVID-19 pandemic, but that doesn’t mean HCPs have stopped looking for new medical information.

In fact, they are engaging with digital education platforms more than ever before, suggesting that these channels could fill the gaps now left in pharma’s marketing programmes.

As one of the largest providers of medical information for physicians, Medscape has found itself at the forefront of informing healthcare professionals around the world on COVID-19.

“We’ve had almost two million unique physicians from 180 countries accessing COVID-19 information,” explains Jeremy Schneider, Group General Manager of WebMD and Medscape Global. “They have generated about 35 million page views on Medscape since the outbreak began.

“These physicians aren’t just hungry for COVID-19 information, but also information on how the outbreak impacts their day-to-day practice and how they deal with patients.

“We’re continuing to develop content for physicians based on their geography and their specialty, but much of the content now is in the context of COVID-19.”

Schneider says that while the change has been a “fast pivot”, the company’s existing resources and infrastructure allowed them to reach millions of physicians by the time the outbreak became a pandemic.

“We’re essentially doing the same thing we have always done but on a larger scale. What we’re seeing now is just a surge in the usage of Medscape by physicians in the world of COVID-19.”

This sudden shift has created unprecedented gaps in the promotional efforts of most pharma companies, which they are struggling to fill.

“Pharma companies have grounded all their sales forces. All the major congresses have been cancelled. The primary ways that pharma used to reach physicians have disappeared.”

As a result, many companies are shifting from physical to digital channels and online platforms to engage with the physicians that have found a new home there.

“Historically pharma would only spend between 5-10% of their marketing budget on digital channels. Now we’re seeing a large shift from those grounded channels towards trying to reach physicians on digital platforms.”
“Medscape is continuing to cover all the major congresses, which are now releasing data virtually. Physicians are still coming to us to learn about the latest data in their particular specialty areas.”

Nevertheless, Schneider points out that digital engagement can be very different to the kinds of engagement pharma is used to – but if companies are aware of online behaviours and are able to work with them, they can continue to be successful in this new world.

“Online, the physician dictates what they want to read and engage with according to their own schedules,” he says. “In the physical world, that’s not always the case.

“Sometimes you see three or four pharmaceutical reps sitting in a waiting room, trying to see the physician and interrupt their day. We’ve always felt that physicians are willing to engage with pharmaceutical information, but they want to do it in their own time. Pharma needs to keep that in mind.”

But, as Schneider points out, these changes were already accelerating before the pandemic.

“Every year, more and more physicians rely on the internet for professional purposes, and that has been supercharged over the last three months with COVID-19. Pharma needs to recognise that these customers are on digital channels.”
“The audience was always there. Our penetration, our activity level and the discussion within the platform has increased even more dramatically over the last couple of months.”

Educating in unpredictable times

But are digital channels as effective as physical channels? Some preliminary Medscape insights seem to suggest so.

There are some clear benefits to digital engagement that might mean it would have become the dominant channel even if lockdowns weren’t in place.

This is particularly true when it comes to engagement with physicians across the world who are dealing with a truly global pandemic.

“Our Medscape Consult platform has been providing videos and commentary from Chinese physicians, which are translated into English, on how to deal with COVID-19 in their own local communities,” says Schneider, giving one example.

“It’s pretty powerful for a physician in Manhattan to be able to look at a video from a physician who dealt with the exact same thing in Wuhan two months earlier. This is not something that would have happened before sites like Medscape.”

He adds that Medscape has been leveraging the “on the ground” key opinion leaders it works with in local markets around the world to respond quickly to the needs of physicians’ practices and give insights into what it actually means to be a doctor on the frontline during these times.

“For example, we’re working with the top infectious disease physicians in France who are creating articles and blogging on our site to tell us what’s happening on the ground there. The same is happening in Brazil, Italy and elsewhere.

“Having a strong name in those local markets does attract physicians to those types of articles. These people deeply understand what doctors are concerned about on a personal level.”

Schneider thinks this shift towards purely digital engagement will be the new norm for the “foreseeable future”.

“I think physicians are going through virtual hell right now with trying to manage COVID-19. It’s hard to imagine, even if the pandemic subsides in the summer, that they are going to be getting on airplanes and travelling around the world to major congresses anytime soon.”
“I’m convinced that digital platforms are the future for physicians to be able to become educated and talk to their peers.”

He adds: “It’s important that those of us in the business of engaging with the healthcare professional recognise that we have a role to play in educating and informing physicians on COVID-19 and ultimately, helping them care for patients by learning from others who have experienced it days or weeks before. That’s a powerful thing to see.”

About the interviewee

Jeremy SchneiderJeremy Schneider is Group General Manager of WebMD and Medscape Global. He manages all aspects of the Medscape business outside the United States.

Media Contact Information: 

Patricia Garrison