The COVID-19 pandemic has set off a flurry of medical research — not the least of which is the ongoing search for a vaccine.
Other important lines of investigation are happening at the same time, though. Researchers are trying to find effective treatments and trying to understand how COVID-19 outcomes might be affected by the presence of other conditions.
As just one example, a paper published in the July 2020 issue of Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases reported on a month-long study into COVID-19 outcomes among people with rheumatic diseases.
The paper, whose first author is University of California San Francisco researcher Milena Gianfrancesco and which was co-authored by 29 more researchers, reports that “moderate to high dose glucocorticoids were associated with a higher risk of hospitalisation for COVID-19,” but that in general most people with rheumatological diseases or on immunosuppressive therapies do recover from COVID-19.
Study by study, the medical world is getting a better understanding of COVID-19, and research like this would be of great interest to certain patients and care providers alike. As more such knowledge emerges, the role of medical affairs teams will be to connect that information with the many stakeholders who need to know it.
At the same time, there is a great deal of trust-building work that needs to happen now, when COVID-19 understanding is still fluid. Again, this is part of the MA’s role in responding to the pandemic.
By listening, learning, earning people’s trust and connecting important information to the right stakeholders, medical affairs will play a key role in helping the world navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is a Learning Opportunity for MA Teams
In April 2020, during a webinar titled “Medical Affairs in the Age of COVID-19,” Sanofi Senior Medical Science Liaison Bob Fell stressed to the audience that the current moment presents an excellent time for self-development among medical affairs professionals.
Fell and other webinar participants noted how digital connectivity is shaping both the medical world’s response to COVID-19 and how the world imagines healthcare delivery. Zoom conferences and a great embrace of telemedicine, for example, are two sides of the same coin.
As the medical world collectively makes this leap, medical affairs professionals have at their fingertips all kinds of resources for listening and learning. “This is a really good time to be focussing on learning and growth,” Fell said. “There’s a couple of traps I think we can get into here. It’s easy to get antsy. It’s a great time for board or other types of certification, podcasts, IBP etc. I would do things that are important to you in the field that you practice in.”
As Fell alluded to, though, the liminality this moment presents has proved tricky to navigate. People are adjusting to new ways of working and connecting. McKinsey researchers Gaurav Agrawal, Brandon Parry, Brindan Suresh and Ann Westra make this point in a May 2020 article. The researchers surveyed MA professionals and medical science liaisons from around the world in April 2020, and many of those surveyed reported “a drop in productivity of anywhere between 25 and 75 percent compared to prepandemic levels.”
Therefore, learning and growth must still leave room for action, specifically the sharing of crucial and timely information. A second wave or even local spikes in contagion call for quick responses. As the initial outbreak of COVID-19 demonstrated, knowledge gaps emerged throughout the world’s care-delivery systems.
Case in point: M3 Global Research reported in June 2020 that of 700 nurses in the U.S. and the U.K. surveyed, nearly half said they felt concerned about whether they were receiving clear information from their organizations on how they personally could stay safe.
Medical affairs, then, cannot lose sight of its role as a conduit of information for all stakeholders, from HCPs to the public at large.
Prioritize Digital Channels for Information Sharing
The medical community has long relied heavily on face-to-face communication, whether that is through conferences, symposia or seminars. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended that approach considerably, and dozens of events were canceled, rescheduled or moved online in the spring of 2020.
Sarah Jarvis at PharmaExec.com says many companies could struggle with a move to digital communications in the short term, but this again creates opportunities for pharmaceutical companies that can navigate the change quickly.
“In the long term, companies should rethink their data dissemination strategies on a broader scale,” Jarvis writes. “This will require thinking beyond traditional medical communication and publication roles and, ideally, pulling in experts in social media and adult education.”
In other words, the medical community will need to rethink how medical information is shared. That is a fundamental, seismic shift.
Already, this change is underway. Dr. Jill Massey, SVP of medical affairs at Melinta Therapeutics, citing a survey from Best Practices, has said that many pharmaceutical companies expect they will be doing 40 percent of their engagements through digital channels after the pandemic.
So far, though, the preferred channels for listening and for sharing information remain discreet. As the team at Monocl points out, patients, patient advocacy groups and influencers in patient communities already engage heavily on social media. Not being present on those social channels, “would mean ceding the field and leaving it to others to inform the discussion about topics that are important to the success of your products,” they write.
Meanwhile, HCPs tend to prefer more formal channels of communication. Simon King at FirstWord Pharma reports on a poll of more than 800 physicians from across North America and Europe. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of those physicians responded that they prefer outreach from a pharmaceutical company to come via email. (Note: That figure applies collectively to outreach from medical affairs, medical science liaisons and sales reps.)
Webinars, online content on company websites and video conferencing were listed as next-best options for engagement, but email was overwhelmingly the preferred channel among physicians.
Demonstrate Responsiveness and Speed in Digital Engagements
The medical affairs teams that understand how to collect up-to-date information and disseminate that information quickly will be poised to lead.
This means having a finger on the pulse of many places at once. As Komodo Health Co-Founder and President Web Sun writes, the pandemic is affecting communities asynchronously. Some places experience higher rates of contagion at different times.
“Medical affairs teams operating solely via digital engagement need to have a precise read on what’s happening in different parts of the country on a real-time basis in order to tailor physician outreach that connects based on what providers are seeing as they are seeing it,” Sun says.
“Last year’s stagnant analysis or engagement list is not enough. And, traditional approaches that lack insight into real-time clinical practice patterns and fast-evolving epidemiology are going to be increasingly insufficient. Insights from dynamic data will be key to effective digital engagement.”
That asynchronous spread creates opportunities to learn, as Extendmed Founder and CEO Ami Ravi tells the Pharmacy Podcast Network. As countries like South Korea, New Zealand and Spain emerge from their COVID-19 outbreaks, medical affairs teams can learn what worked in those countries and share that information with HCPs in countries on the other side of the curve.
Long-Term: Will COVID-19 Change the Role of Medical Affairs?
The throughline in all of the conversations above has been digital experience. MA teams, care providers, payers, patients and all other stakeholders are navigating a digital transformation all at once.
ZS Associate Principal Victoria Summers argued in March 2020 that it’s time for everyone to reimagine care delivery in this digital context. “For both payers and pharma companies, it’s time to rethink the patient end-to-end experience,” she writes. “If you don’t have an experience map, now is the perfect time to create one.”
That map, Summers writes, would include everything from how a patient asks pointed questions during a telehealth consultation to how well a pharmaceutical company’s website content renders for readers on a mobile phone.
Then, medical affairs needs to understand its territory on that same map. Sunil John, also from ZS, explains what that work might look like. This includes:
- Understanding what content is needed and what channels are most effective for sharing that content.
- Knowing which channels different KOLs prefer.
- Recognizing what soft skills will be useful for building relationships with a variety of stakeholders across a variety of digital channels.
If this seems daunting, don’t worry. Digital transformation is hard enough on its own. Making those transformations concurrently with different stakeholders in the middle of a pandemic is an altogether new level of challenging.
But for MA teams that can embrace digital tools quickly, there is an opportunity right now to lead by demonstrating empathy, relationship-building skills, the ability to synthesize information quickly and the ability to share that knowledge effectively.