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The COVID-19 health crisis instantly changed how medical affairs organizations approached day-to-day work. As we enter year three of the pandemic, medical affairs leaders are examining how the disruption will continue to shape longer-term strategy – and what actually improved amid unprecedented challenges.
One of the pandemic’s silver linings may well be gains in participation levels and the volume and quality of insights generated by eliminating the constraints of face-to-face interaction. A forced shift to asynchronous, virtual, and hybrid engagements for medical affairs, including advisory boards and 1:1 meetings between medical science liaisons (MSLs) and healthcare providers (HCPs), opened the door to more frequent communication without limitations related to time or travel.
While most medical affairs teams are eager to resume some form of in-person collaboration, the pandemic’s virtual revolution seems to have taken hold. Data from a recently published Reuters Health survey of medical affairs roles from pharmaceutical (75%), biotech (19%), medical device (5%), and consumer health manufacturers (1%) found that 80% believe advisory boards and 65% believe steering committees will remain virtual events.
Driving these preferences are factors that were in place prior to the pandemic. HCPs have a high desire for more focused scientific exchange with the industry, and they want to consume content free from bias to obtain the clearest picture of new therapies, technologies, and their potential impact on patient care – often without the interruption of setting in-person meetings or logging a lot of travel. “What physicians valued during the pandemic were concise information, short conversations, and no fluff,” stated Eliav Barr, SVP Global Medical Affairs for Merck.
What pandemic-induced factors improved the ability of medical affairs organizations to have this type of focused scientific exchange, and why will they persist as we continue to adjust to our new normal?
Support for diversity and inclusion
Before virtual advisory boards became more or less mandatory in early 2020, pharma and medtech innovators acquired insights from their usual suspects – the KOLs they knew and trusted – for reasons of familiarity, comfort, contractual requirements, and simplicity. And while these experts are in demand for a reason, the reliance on a select few can have unintended consequences.
“For the sake of diversity, there is a strong argument for advisory boards remaining virtual with asynchronous opinion collection before and after, because this uncovers previously unheard expert voices,” said VIctoria Ho, Jazz Pharma’s Director, Medical Excellence and Capabilities. This benefits medical affairs for the simple reason that value is not driven by what organizers and contributors want to hear, but what they need to hear. An open, inclusive, unvarnished forum for debate translates directly to more qualitative feedback getting MSLs and their teams where they want to go faster.
More inclusive, comprehensive KOL feedback allows medical affairs professionals to plan earlier and broaden scope where needed and ultimately move more quickly and efficiently in the long run. But this inclusivity can be hampered by the tendency for the most dominant or most senior voices in a room to dominate the conversation. The so-called babble hypothesis – which suggests that the quantity rather than quality of speaking determines who emerges as a leader in small group settings – can limit the diversity of insights collected, with a detrimental effect on business strategy and eventually, patient outcomes.
Freedom to contribute without inconvenience
While most of the world grew increasingly Zoom fatigued in hours-long meetings that slowed work down as often as it moved it forward, some medical affairs organizations began building insight generation strategies around asynchronous engagement. The ability of asynchronous engagement to make responsiveness easier, to provide a forum for credible scientific exchange without derailing participation in research or patient care, generated higher participation rates by simply prioritizing participants.
Access to a global community
Global access to KOLs without the global travel requirement opens an exponentially larger scope of contributors and enriches scientific exchange. “This past year the boundaries really blurred, and made us think deeply about how we engaged with healthcare providers,” said Ed Power, VP North America, Medical Affairs, Hospital Business for Pfizer. “In doing so, we have shifted from having a geographic or regional function mindset to take on a truly global perspective.”
Here again, virtual tools and asynchronous workflows provide an assist. Elimination of language barriers through automatic translation is a boon, and can expand access to program content and insights from global contributors in a participants’ preferred language. Now, experts with many different perspectives can provide input, take part in debate, and ultimately contribute to higher quality, actionable insights.
To understand the impact of a more global conversation, consider the impact for global clinical trials: bringing U.S. and European trials together under one umbrella, with sufficient translation capability, and the resulting gains in insights via cross-cultural diversity of feedback without travel requirements and within a highly compressed timeframe.
The macro view
In a challenging business and scientific environment, virtual, asynchronous, and even hybrid engagement revealed efficiencies, accelerated timelines, improved insight generation, and opened opportunities for MSLs and medical affairs programs. That these benefits resonated for billion-dollar industry leaders as well as small biotechs and startups is proof that digital transformation is changing every aspect of the industry – and that improvement in insight generation and capture has been available to medical affairs organizations for years. Now, teams have the evidence they need to move forward with a strategic insights management approach that can transform patient outcomes.
by Mike Abbadessa, VP of Medical Affairs for Within3