Why agility is the key to navigating the fast-changing healthcare landscape


Outlining the key digital trends accelerated by the transformed healthcare landscape in 2021—and their impact on pharma commercialization strategies going forward

Several key trends have been causing waves in the pharmaceutical industry and healthcare market in recent years, prompting changes in the way many companies operate. Many of these trends have been accelerated by the Covid-19 outbreak, requiring the sector to adapt even more rapidly to minimize pandemic disruption. As a result, today’s healthcare landscape looks very different from the sector we were all familiar with just 24 months ago.

For example, remote and digital approaches to engagement with healthcare professionals (HCPs) and patients have been rising for many years. E-tools, such as individual and mass emails, as well as web portals and social media platforms, have increasingly been used to engage with HCPs and patients at times and on channels more convenient to them. However, despite these developments, traditional face-to-face engagement remained the mainstay prior to the pandemic due to:

  • Physician preference for personal interactions (even during the pandemic, HCPs rated representatives as their preferred channel for engaging with pharma companies1).
  • An industry-wide hesitancy to change a model that had been effective for so long.
  • Assumptions that patients—particularly the elderly—would be reluctant to turn to digital channels for discussions about their health, favoring personal, face-to-face engagement.

Covid accelerated a shift in mindset, requiring pharmaceutical companies and healthcare providers across the globe to abruptly replace traditional face-to-face engagement. It necessitated a rise in the use of digital and remote channels to meet with HCPs, and ensured they had the information they needed to manage their patients effectively. It also required HCPs and pharmaceutical companies to consider how to support vulnerable patients with their healthcare needs remotely, in order to maintain social distancing to protect them from infection.

As a result of these rapid changes in ways of working, several trends have accelerated:

  • A drive for omnichannel engagement – pharma companies increasingly need support in building their engagement capability across multiple channels. As economies begin to open up after the pandemic, we are seeing an increase in face-to-face engagement. However, with greater adoption of digital channels, growing preference for on-demand options and 54% of global HCPs saying they prefer hybrid engagement with sales reps,2 we can expect omnichannel to be central to the “new normal.” When it comes to patient engagement, we are also seeing the embracing of a hybrid model. Some patients welcome a return to face-to-face interaction when undergoing treatment, but a growing number are happy with remote digital engagement, such as virtual consultations and SMS, or email updates from their HCPs. For example, in one Ashfield Engage program, once patients understood they would be waiting longer for an in-home visit, 56% of the patient pool changed their visit preference to virtual within two weeks.
  • A need for engaging, varied and relevant content 80% of sales teams believe “fresh, relevant content” is the most effective way to generate HCP interest during screen-to-screen interactions.3 To engage HCPs effectively across diverse channels, drug manufacturers need help developing fresh and eye-catching content tailored to the specific requirements of each channel. Companies also need to reconsider which specific key messages and product benefits resonate most with HCPs. It’s also important to tailor content to be more engaging and relevant to patients. The language needs to be accessible for patients with little medical knowledge, and the content needs to be in formats and on channels that are user-friendly and tailored to the unique requirements of individual patients.
  • Support adapting to new healthcare delivery models – new research and development (R&D) and care delivery models have appeared in recent years, such as decentralized clinical trials, as well as remote or digital patient monitoring. Pharma companies are looking for guidance and expertise to adapt to these new ways of working.

In addition to these changes in engagement and delivery models, we are seeing the pharma industry shift its focus toward drugs for rare diseases and orphan conditions, as well as cell and gene therapies. This will require an enormous shift in ways of working for pharma companies to ensure that the resources are in place to support the drug lifecycle. A number of areas will need additional support to ensure the success of new therapies, including scientific education, patient identification and reimbursement.

Elsewhere, the role of big data and analytics looms large in the industry. Whether it is understanding how, when and where to communicate with stakeholders, or understanding real-world treatment and its impacts, rich data has the potential to transform the development and delivery of treatment. The race is on to secure and integrate data, and build genuinely actionable insights. In the years to come, data-driven decision-making will no longer be a differentiator for pharma but a foundational expectation.

The agility challenge

To adapt to all of these changes effectively, there is a need to leverage digital technologies at all levels and across all aspects of the commercialization strategy, from HCP and patient engagement, to medical affairs and market access.

  • HCP and patient engagement challenges – some organizations don’t have the capability to draw insights from interaction data for different channels, nor to adapt messages and communications tool to maximize engagement. Pharma companies may be held back by large, traditional sales teams that lack the ability to adapt quickly to changing capacity needs or to flux in stakeholder communication requirements.
  • Inflexible medical affairs approach – many companies lack the flexible staffing models required to adjust the size of their medical information and medical science liaison (MSL) teams, adapt their expertise to harness new digital tools, or meet the needs of new, ever-expanding stakeholder groups.
  • Market access issues – with increased pricing pressure in all major markets, it is critical to understand payer needs and navigate the challenges of pricing, distribution and reimbursement. For example, in the US, the consolidation of pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) and the development of payer owned “buying groups” have increased leverage against pharma companies when it comes to net pricing and ensuring adequate reimbursement. As such, more than ever before, there is greater pressure on pharma gross to nets. Many companies need expert support navigating these issues.

Many large, well-established companies struggle to adapt, as they are held back by legacy systems and outdated operational approaches that can be expensive and time-consuming to deconstruct and revitalize.

This can also prevent them from taking advantage of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), across their commercialization strategies.

The need for agile support

Strategic partners can support in overcoming agility issues across a wide range of areas:

  • HCP engagement They can support in the development and delivery of content tailored for the needs of HCPs across all channels when and where they need it, enabling a true omnichannel engagement approach. When it comes to analysis of stakeholder engagement preferences and behaviors, they can provide in-depth recommendations.
  • Patient engagement – Strategic partners can support pharma companies to leverage patient-centric technology, creating a cohesive, personalized experience that uses the right blend of channels for every individual. Along the treatment journey, access to real-time data and analytics allow the program managers and clinical educators to respond faster to patients’ evolving needs, improving adherence and persistence.
  • Medical affairs – A medical affairs specialist will be able to provide flexible MSL support when it is needed, thanks to their access to candidates with specialist expertise and experience to allow the scaling up and down of resources. They can also build the right medical information (MI) program for the needs of the product, whether that means providing MI support using core channels such as phone, email and mail, and harnessing customer relationship management (CRM) integration and interactive voice response (IVR) systems, or using more innovative approaches such as live chat, click to connect, video calls, chatbots or AI and speech analytics.

The future of commercialization

The commercial landscape for pharmaceuticals and healthcare is constantly shifting. While we are already seeing a partial shift back to old ways of working post-Covid, things will not return exactly to how they were before the outbreak.

Keeping up with this rapid evolution comes with risk—pharma companies don’t want to invest in teams and resources for new approaches that won’t always deliver a return.

However, the right strategic partner can take on this risk on their behalf, supporting them in adapting across the whole commercialization process. They can manage all the different and complex stakeholder engagements, providing pharma companies and healthcare providers with the agility and accountability they need to continue to meet the needs of their stakeholders, whatever the future holds.

About the author

Greg Flynn is President of Ashfield Engage.


1. Ipsos E-Detailing Benchmark, March 26-April 2, 2020

2. Sermo HCP Sentiment Series Part 6, May 2021, www.sermo.com/hcp-sentiment-study-series

3. STEM Healthcare Ltd Case Study Data and Benchmark Database 2021, www.stemhealthcare.com

4. Accenture, Reinventing relevance: New models for Pharma Engagement with Healthcare Providers in a COVID-19 World, May 2020.

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