Medical Information’s Technology Revolution: Top 5 Industry Insights

Ian Hamilton, Company Director at Original Digital Limited (formerly Medical Affairs Global IT for Lilly) and Shai Blackwell, Managing Director, Europe at conversationHEALTH

Covid-19 has had a massive impact on Pharmaceutical Medical Affairs teams, and like many other industries, it has tested their functions in digital maturity, capabilities, tools, and skills. Often driving a rapid re-think and adoption of new or expanded digital solutions. Many experts believe Covid-19 has accelerated digital adoption by as many as 5 years, with no signs of it stopping anytime soon. The pandemic has changed the way Medical Affairs work, with digital now being the “next normal”.

Here we share the top 5 industry insights for Medical Information’s Technology Revolution from industry IT leader Ian Hamilton:

1. What are the biggest challenges & opportunities that Medical Affairs teams have faced in the last 18 months?

Companies have generally been surprised by the successes and efficiencies they have observed with digital, and the ability of their teams to adapt and learn. Lockdowns meant Medical Sales Reps could no longer visit Healthcare Professionals (HCPs) in person; they had to embrace virtual meetings and other collaboration tools quickly, allowing them to reach more customers while still building and developing relationships, albeit virtually.

Many companies are also developing digital self-serve portals and virtual assistants to deflect volume away from human agents, and to allow customers to engage 24/7. With virtual assistants and voice recognition technologies, we are starting to see intelligent assistants that can sit in the contact center IVR (call flow), answering many customer questions or service requests. The future will be a hybrid of both human and virtual assistants. Companies are exploring and discovering what the right balance is and the possibilities of automation.

Medical Information functions play a key role in supporting the appropriate and safe use of medicines, and while they are not the treatment decision-maker, they have access to data-driven information and resources that are often not in the public domain or easy to find. We have estimated that less than 5% of HCPs regularly contact Pharma Medical Information services, and far less when it comes to patients and carers. Why is this? These services — historically — have not been easy to find, navigate and consume, and perhaps not in the channel of choice or workflow of the HCP. Medical Information teams must embrace digital to ensure they are available to reach the widest possible audience. There are challenges, of course, every company is struggling to provide visible answers with easy access, while ensuring compliance to the local codes and regulations, and some companies have made great progress — Pfizer and Lilly to note two.

There is also a big opportunity for cross-industry collaboration and shared learning here, and organisations such as PhactMI (US) and MILE (EU) are helping to drive things forward, however, we believe all parties should work together (pharma, regulators, local codes, industry associations etc.) to define the operating rules and boundaries for the digital age.

2. Which technologies are you seeing at the forefront of supporting Medical Information to meet this shift in digital behaviour of their customers?

First, we are seeing companies redesigning their content creation and delivery strategies. Traditional Scientific Response Documents (SRDs) were never designed for the omnichannel digital age we are in today. Having answers developed using tools and formats that allow consistent messaging across all channels, while giving the flexibility to format the answer to the channel of use, is the desired goal. Due to legacy systems and processes, plus the effort required to change, this is not an insignificant task. But when done well, there is great potential for efficiencies with content reuse and content reach.

Some companies are going down the path of global cross-company DAMs (Digital Asset Management) solutions, where all customer-facing content for both commercial and medical is stored and disseminated. This can help when trying to see the 360-degree view of the customer, but also has its challenges. Many of these tools are designed with commercial in mind and do not necessarily integrate well into other medical tools and processes e.g. medical CRM and fulfilment solutions. The impact is that the consumption of medical content is not easily captured back to the DAM. Caution is required to ensure appropriate firewalls are in place.

Omnichannel and personalization are also big areas in exploration. Some companies are evolving from limited self-serve answer portals to include more advanced services such as medical educational materials, stability calculators, virtual assistants, clinical trial services, congress events, publications, and investigational drugs to name a few. Personalization can also help to direct customers to the most appropriate experience based on their profile. Even anonymous customers can benefit from some level of personalization by understanding their journey and search history.

We are seeing a lot of investment in self-service Medical Information portals, especially in the US, but more recently in Canada, Europe, and other markets around the world. These were primarily targeted at HCPs but have expanded to include patients in the case of COVID vaccine manufacturers, and something will likely see more of as patient engagement increases in Medical Information. Conversational AI is increasingly a key component of these self-service portals, for ease and speed of consumption of complex medical information, i.e. ask and get an answer.

3. What are Medical Information teams looking for in a technology (and partner) to help them meet this evolution?

The ideal technology partner has domain knowledge and experience in delivering solutions for Medical Affairs. Many technology companies have Pharma experience and/or technology experience, but often this is working with Commercial teams. We’ve seen how sometimes commercially focused initiatives can negatively impact the effectiveness of the medical team if medical needs are not fully understood. Without having a knowledgeable voice early in the technology adoption process can increase implementation times and costs. The Medical Affairs function has many nuances and specific requirements to ensure compliance with industry codes and regulations. Knowing these together with understanding how HCPs work is a big advantage.

Technology, especially digital, can move quickly and it is important to find a partner that wants to work and learn with you, not penalize you for every small change. Often when developing innovative new solutions, you are learning and adapting along the way. You need a partner that wants to come on the journey with you and sees the value of the knowledge and experience they also gain.

4. What are you seeing done well in the market with Medical teams when it comes to selecting technology that will impact the business — both internally and externally?

Delivering an efficient and effective Medical Affairs function, with solutions and services that delight customers, requires two equally important components: firstly, an effective, integrated toolset for your Medical Affairs professionals, allowing them to maximize their time and skills to deliver the most appropriate information, education, and services; and secondly, relevant, easy to find and access channels where customers can consume at the time that best suits them. HCPs are time-constrained with heavy workloads. Ease of access and finding what they are looking for rapidly is very important to them, ideally in their normal workflow. (Not to be underestimated!)

It’s important when selecting technologies, for both internal and external, you understand how they fit into the overall ecosystem of your corporate solutions, that they do not require rework or create bottlenecks in the workflow, but allow more speed in searching, creating, approving, and delivering materials and services. For healthcare professionals, providing solutions that get as close as possible to their workflow helps drive adoption and acceptance. We are seeing more and more partnerships looking to deliver at the point of need, whether that’s in the Electronic Medical Record (EMR) systems, across 5G networks or in advanced diagnostic tools.

5. Using your crystal ball, where will Medical Information be as a function within pharma in the next 3 years?

We can only see more and more digital automation and exploration. Solutions will get smarter, and we will become more comfortable and trusting of artificial intelligence. The companies that will do best will be able to integrate multiple data sources such as clinical trial data, real-world evidence, patient health records, pharmacovigilance data and others to mine, detect, and discover more from the data. Ultimately this can only support more valued interactions with customers and drive the safer use of medicines, which is good for patients, healthcare and pharma. The challenge for pharma is if they do not do this, others will, giving them an upper hand.

Covid-19 has driven demand and accelerated the use of Medical Affairs services. Medical Affairs professionals typically have a strong peer to peer relationship with HCPs, and this can improve even further if all stakeholders (regulators, codes, pharma, etc.) better define the boundaries for sharing non-promotional, evidence-based medicines and therapeutic information. This information could then be better targeted and personalized with more open, trusted access for HCPs aligned to their preferences and needs. Even without this, some level of personalization can be achieved, by understanding the journey and resources even an anonymous customer has followed.

In summary, the pandemic has shown how the industry can mobilize, collaborate, and adapt, whether it is bringing new vaccines and medicines to market in previously unthinkable timeframes, or transforming services and people to the digital age. For Medical Affairs, all of this was against a backdrop of significantly increased volume in customer enquiries, ongoing clinical studies, reliability of drug supply, compassionate-use access as well as countering fake news stories about miracle cures and medicines misinformation. We believe the way the industry responded has significantly improved its credibility and levels of trust, while institutionalizing learning from its digital explorations.

The important thing is to make a move and not delay. The world is moving forward, and pharma companies need to take the step to break the inertia or fall further behind.

The conversationHEALTH SaaS platform is purpose-built for the life sciences industry to engage with patients, consumers and healthcare professionals 24/7/365.