How Medical Affairs Teams Can Improve Their Digital Communications

Medical affairs professionals rely on doctor communication to share their latest treatment options and technology. But what happens when a doctor is too busy to meet in-person? What happens when a global pandemic eliminates the option to travel or meet safely?


MA teams have been improving their virtual communication practices for some time, and many healthcare professionals are responding well to this digital transformation. Here’s how MA teams can communicate effectively in a way that moves their treatments — and modern medicine as a whole — forward.

Digital Communication Preferences

The first step in the digital communication transformation is understanding how doctors want to be reached. You can have a leading medical affairs podcast or fool-proof text message campaign, but if HCPs don’t respond, your efforts go to waste.

Simon King, Executive Editor at FirstWord Pharma, shared his company’s survey of 856 physicians from across the United States and Europe. More than 60 percent of physicians prefer to communicate via email, making it the most popular digital engagement option. This was followed by webinars (39 percent in Europe and 26 percent in the U.S.) and online content at 30 percent for both.

When you consider the behavior of physicians and HCPs, you can understand why channels like email and webinars are popular. Both can be viewed at a later time. Most doctors can’t drop everything to engage with MA materials. They want to connect with the information but need to do it when so when convenient to them.

“The reasons why physicians prefer digital conversations boil down to their lack of time,” writes Elio Evangelista, director of marketing at the Accreditation Council for Medical Affairs. “Health systems require HCPs to see more patients per day, which leads to a greater administrative burden and effectively no time for conversations with industry reps… Let’s face it, physician access to industry reps is only going to decrease.”

That said, each health care professional has their own personal preference. What one doctor relies on for information another might ignore completely. This is where MA teams are advancing. They are collecting this information and using data to communicate with physicians through the best possible channels.

Digital communication is getting better and is more widely accepted. It’s up to MA departments to form strategies that help them better reach physicians.


Digital Tools Allow MA Teams to Connect With Doctors and Patients

The rise of digital communication continues to change the role of MA professionals. Not only are medical affairs teams engaging with doctors digitally, but they are also reaching more patients directly to share information.

“The role of medical affairs in leading the digital health revolution is not limited to interactions with HCPs; patients also represent an important opportunity to connect and tailor insights,” writes Hilary Armstrong, head of medical strategy at healthcare marketing company Fingerpaint. “Patients discuss a wealth of information online through social media, online communities, and patient portals.”

Ignoring digital media may cause medical affairs teams to miss out on these valuable conversations and insight into their patient base.

“The trend for medical affairs teams to be involved in patient engagement activities has been gaining momentum but new ways of approaching problems can take time to become established practice and be complex to instigate,” says Stephen Page, cofounder of healthcare communications agency Page & Page. “However, it is only by seeing the world out of other people’s eyes that you can solve real-life challenges, gain insight, and make true progress.”

In some cases, physicians communicating with patients colloquially on social media might be a side effect of our “always connected” culture. MA teams initially turned to social media because that’s where physicians were — meaning their message reaches doctors long after they leave work for the day. When doctors are online, MA teams can meet them online on various social channels.

“Many HCPs are finding less time than ever to study in traditional ways, which means a good part of their newly found knowledge comes during their leisure time when they are browsing the Internet,” Byron Mignanelli, CEO and co-founder at Global Strategic Management Institute writes. This makes it more important than ever for MA teams, pharma marketers and sales reps to immerse themselves in social media and other digital platforms.

A doctor might listen to a podcast on their commute or review a medical journal while relaxing at home. With the digital revolution, opportunities to connect with medical staff don’t stop at the hospital door.


Digital Communication is Part of the MA Transformation

This transition into the digital realm was a long time coming. As more doctors request digital communication and virtual experiences, MA teams are investing more in these channels. The pandemic has only hastened the process.

“We will probably always have virtual as a component after the pandemic ends, at least for the foreseeable future, because the pandemic has shown us what’s possible – that it is possible,” says Robert Stevens, vice president, global head of digital medical affairs at Novartis. “There seem to be several – previously never considered – advantages to virtual scientific meetings in terms of convenience, reach and ability to collect medical/clinical feedback from much larger audiences.”

In many ways, the pandemic has helped move MAs and HCPs further into the digital communication world. However, it may also have slowed some adoption efforts as teams operated with limited budgets and opportunities over the past year.

On the other hand, this past year might be just what MA teams needed to refocus their efforts and develop a more holistic approach to communication — leading to better results and deeper physician connections.

“As the Medical Affairs function has become more connected, we have honed our integrated approach to support pharmaceutical teams across the full product lifecycle and the associated customer journeys,” says Lori Lush, head of Fishawack Medical. “Opportunities range from consulting on research and development, the pipeline and product development to working on publications and medical affairs strategy and implementation, all the way to commercial support.”

MA professionals work at all stages of the development lifecycle within their pharmaceutical companies. It makes sense that these experts would be able to develop better communication plans for each step in the physician and patient journey.


Creating New Guidelines and Boundaries

While the digital world provides countless opportunities for MA teams, industry leaders are still calling for regulations, guidelines and even basic etiquette that can standardize communication.

“Alongside the general mindset shift and technology integration, there needs to be effective governance and compliance with the guardrails that are essential in a regulated industry,” explain Mary Alice Dwyer and Sameer Lal, vice president at Synetic Life Sciences and senior vice president of business development at Indegene, respectively.

These regulations protect pharmaceutical companies, MA professionals and the physicians themselves. They ensure that shared information is accurate and updated, preventing the spread of misinformation and confusion.

“Over the years, continued regulatory pressure has shifted many responsibilities to medical affairs,” says Samantha McGrail, assistant editor at Xtelligent Healthcare Media. “Due to the importance of delivering credible medical information, companies must continue to update their policies.”

MA teams were already moving toward improved digital communication when the pandemic hit. This past year accelerated digital connections with physicians and changed the face of medical affairs. It’s up to industry leaders to hone this new way to connect with doctors and set up guidelines to ensure their industry remains valuable to HCPs and ethical in its healthcare communication best practices.

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