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This year, across dozens of medical affairs industry events, one theme continues to resurface: omnichannel engagement. While this model for communicating with healthcare professionals (HCPs) is common in sales and marketing, it is less utilized by medical affairs professionals. Medical affairs teams have historically shied away from omnichannel for various reasons, including a lack of alignment on the definition and potential of omnichannel in medical affairs and the need for more data and technology to deliver the promise. Still, suddenly, there is much conversation about what it means in practice for MSLs and how it can benefit all customer-facing teams.
By Deepak Patil, Senior Director of Medical Strategy at Aktana
Life sciences organizations are realizing the impact of field medical affairs-driven engagement across overall organizational success, causing them to escalate their efforts to empower medical affairs professionals with the right tools to engage effectively and efficiently with key opinion leaders (KOLs). One recent report suggested that pre-launch disease state education by field medical with KOLs led to 1.5x greater treatment adoption post-launch.
Likewise, medical affairs organizations want omnichannel engagement training, tools, and resources to help them leverage this strategy to improve relationships with KOLs. Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs) also hope adopting omnichannel engagement strategies will improve their efficiency – critical, especially as more life sciences companies are leaning on them to do more than ever before.
The problem is ambiguity in defining what omnichannel engagement means and how to execute it. Some companies’ scope omnichannel narrowly for each customer-facing team (e.g., medical affairs, marketing, sales) or broadly across all teams, making it difficult to find common measures of success. Unlike sales reps, who typically have more easily quantifiable goals (i.e., increase scripts), medical affairs teams measure success in a wide variety of ways and not always quantitatively.
It’s no wonder that omnichannel adoption by medical affairs lags its customer-facing cousins in sales and marketing. Yet, MSLs have more responsibilities and medical affairs is viewed as a more strategic part of the business – combined, that has increased their demand for omnichannel capabilities.
I spoke to two medical affairs leaders* – Jane Ogan, Associate Director of Innovation and Customer Experience, U.S. Medical Affairs at GSK and John Wahba, Senior Director of Global Medical Affairs at Kite, a Gilead Company – to see if we can land on a single understanding of omnichannel engagement for medical affairs. Here’s what they had to say.
Q: What is your definition of omnichannel engagement?
Jane Ogan: There are so many definitions. When you boil it down, though, omnichannel engagement is intelligent, coordinated communication with customers across all touchpoints.
John Wahba: Omnichannel is about delivering a seamless, well-connected engagement experience that meets the customer’s needs. The key is the quality and relevance of the content. While there will be specific drivers and goals for medical affairs teams that an omnichannel approach serves – what I call omnichannel medical goals (OMG), such as supporting scientific engagement and medical education – an omnichannel strategy should be executed across the organization and not distinguished separately just for medical affairs. Further, organizations should align on a definition and strategy for omnichannel sooner rather than later.
Q: Why has Medical Affairs been slower to adopt omnichannel and associated technologies?
JO: The Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on engagement helped to accelerate the shift to investment in technology for MSLs and now there is increasing recognition that we need these kinds of supporting technologies to succeed in any environment – pandemic or otherwise. Medical Affairs is rising as a strategic pillar in the pharmaceutical industry and with that comes investment in enabling technologies like omnichannel tools.
There has been an explosion of data and medical literature in the last few years and doctors want subject matter experts like MSLs to help them cut through the noise and get what they need. They often prefer to speak with an MSLs but there’s also a seat at the table for all customer-facing groups – an omnichannel engagement strategy is the only way to coordinate and give doctors what they need.
JW: One reason for the slower adoption is simply the general mindset in medical affairs, feeling like a supporting player in the business and working siloed away on their own private island. MSLs have also historically engaged in rich, face-to-face scientific discussions with HCPs rather than sending emails or other approaches. Now, medical affairs is seen as a strategy partner in the business, helping to shape engagement strategies based on their interactions with key opinion leaders in the field and these KOLs are becoming more comfortable with digital channels.
Another possible reason for the slower adoption is the historical lack of infrastructure to support medical affairs omnichannel tactics, whether they be training, capability building, or resources to execute. It is now more important than ever to ensure medical affairs teams are established in a way that can support and deliver on omnichannel engagement strategies. Medical affairs should also be at the center of this, and no longer watching from the sidelines. These capabilities are no longer a ‘nice to have,’ but a must. Teams that adopt omnichannel will replace those who do not.
Q: How can omnichannel engagement benefit MSLs and the overall organization?
JO: The most limited resource in the world is time so if you can make MSLs more efficient and effective then they are creating better relationships with key opinion leaders. Omnichannel engagement helps supplementing what MSLs already do on their own, such as helping them prepare for HCP meetings (which last much longer than sales rep interactions). This is where we see the value immediately.
Second, and most importantly, omnichannel allows our organization to meet an HCP where they are with next-best-action suggestions for relevant, in that moment that matters delivery. This is a big change for MSLs that will help improve their relationships – dramatically enhancing HCPs’ experience with a personalized journey with our company.
JW: Omnichannel provides armory to an MSL. It allows MSLs to optimize scientific engagement and provide a better experience. This delivers multiple benefits: the HCP gets relevant information when they need it most, the MSL gains better, more focused insights from the HCP and ultimately builds greater trust with that doctor.
And, while omnichannel can increase the reach of medical affairs teams beyond the narrow pool of physicians that they usually engage with regularly, it can also enable MSLs to have a laser focus on more meaningful engagements. Many HCPs’ knowledge gaps will be bridged from information available on demand through digital channels, and by the time they reach the MSL, the discussion can be more targeted and lead to the discovery of key unmet needs.
AI-driven Next-Best-Action technologies will support MSLs in orchestrating their omnichannel engagements. But, the MSL is still in the driver’s seat – making the most appropriate decisions with NBA suggestions providing analytics-driven assistance.
Q: Discuss a real-life example where omnichannel engagement has helped with top physicians?
JO: We have learned several important lessons from real-world use cases of omnichannel engagement across medical affairs. The first is that HCPs want to know as much information as possible about new products and often have many questions. With MSLs connected with other channels, we can answer more questions faster and then send MSLs directly to key physicians’ offices who submit questions digitally.
Another area where we are finding success is in the preparation for medical conferences – an environment where MSLs really shine.
Generally, GSK leverages technology to enable omnichannel engagement. We have a solid foundation, but the next step is figuring out how to scale it and connect more of those dots.
JW: In real life, it’s all about creating the best possible customer experience but you don’t need to boil the ocean right from the beginning to have an impact on the customer experience. For instance, I worked on an initiative where our medical affairs team identified the need and value of implementing an omnichannel approach to scientific engagement.
We started by shaping the HCP medical journey and we focused on one therapy area in one country where the only channel medical was using besides face-to-face was email. We mapped relevant medical content, created a medical-specific website to direct traffic to, and experimented with automated emails. Compared to historic local benchmarking data, we saw a significant increase in email click-throughs, a massive increase in downloaded content from the website, and an increase in time HCPs spent on the site. Furthermore, over 90% of HCPs said that they would re-share the content with a colleague. This proof-of-concept was an important step in the journey and laid the foundation for evolving the initiative – not to mention, it was a catalyst for a mindset shift and change management.
While the term “omnichannel” has been around for a long time, its adoption in medical affairs has been slow and even erratic. In a survey of more than 80 MSLs and field medical leaders during the 2022 Medical Affairs Professional Society (MAPS) Global Annual Meeting, only 3% said they had an omnichannel engagement plan and capabilities to deliver it within their organization. And two-thirds said they lacked a roadmap and the foundational capabilities to achieve the omnichannel vision. This must change.
The good news is that while the scope of omnichannel still varies widely across organizations, common guiding principles exist: 1) define physician journey, 2) design personalized experiences, 3) deliver those experiences in an orchestrated way, 4) measure engagement, and 5) refine the approach. Repeat. In the end, providing a true omnichannel engagement experience will require significantly more cross-functional collaboration – even if the fear of MLR (Medical, Legal, and Regulatory) compliance has impeded this in the past. Now, with clearer regulatory guidelines, access to richer data, and advanced medical affairs-specific technology, the industry is finally in a better position to deliver a true omnichannel experience.
*NOTE: The comments herein are representative of the individuals quoted and do not necessarily represent the opinions of organizations they are associated with today or in previous roles.
About the Author:
Deepak Patil is a senior director of medical strategy at Aktana. A physician by training, Patil has over a decade of experience designing novel use cases of real-world data across the drug development continuum as a medical advisor at Sun Pharmaceuticals, strategy consultant at IQVIA and, most recently, as real-world data strategist at IBM Watson Health.