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Aftermath: BioPharma’s Brave New World

It has been difficult for many lately to focus on the next day, let alone the next week. However, if your work involves helping healthcare companies plan for the future, as mine does, creating 2021 scenarios is foundational for advising clients. Below are some possible futures and considerations for healthcare that may force the biopharma industry to change course in some fundamental areas. I hesitate to call them ‘predictions,’ because as of today they’re only half formed but still worth exploring.

Creating future scenarios is foundational for advising clients.

Since there’s no precedent, it’s difficult to predict what the US and the world will look like in 2021. However, in addition to the seasonal flu we should expect Covid-19 to resurface in the fall and winter months, delivering a ‘double whammy.’ Until the virus resurfaces fully a portion of the population will continue to self-isolate, a portion will return to the office but will choose to avoid peak times on public transit and crowds at music and sporting events, and a portion will try to carry on with life and ‘business as (the new) usual.’

Newfound Respect for Medicine Makers

There have been a few rapid and noticeable impacts of Covid-19 on the biopharma industry. First is a more positive public image and public appreciation for the entire US healthcare system, including the contributions of the research-driven biopharmaceutical industry.

Second, this crisis has delivered a series of ‘teachable moments,’ educating the public about the importance of a science-based approach and setting realistic expectations for how long it may take to develop safe and effective vaccines and treatments for Covid-19.

The crisis has reminded the public of why the FDA exists.

Third, the crisis has reminded the public of why the FDA exists—in part to ensure the safety and efficacy of all medications available to US patients. Witnessing politicians publicly circumvent and demean the FDA’s experts, standards and processes by irresponsibly promoting the off-label use for Covid-19 of a medicine indicated for the treatment of malaria – with little to no clinical evidence – was very disturbing yet may portend a future in which politics sometimes overrules science, even in matters of life and death.

Fresh Challenges for Marketing & Sales

BioPharma Sales and Marketing teams in 2021 will deal with a much different US health system that was stretched way beyond capacity in 2020 and did not return to its previous shape. Many hospitals and practices will either be gone or financially unstable, and the survivors will have remade their priorities and policies regarding interactions with biopharma personnel.

In-person visits and the resulting relationships have been an essential part of the effectiveness of biopharmaceutical sales representatives, and they are likely to decrease dramatically as the number ofno-see physiciansincreases. Some healthcare professional (HCP) customers will have decided that allowing sales reps and district managers (DMs) into their offices is not worth the health risks to their patients and staff, further reducing already-limited face-to-face access.

The telehealth boom will continue for many HCPs and patients, which also will limit or eliminate the opportunities for biopharma Sales and Marketing ‘interventions’ that traditionally occurred in many doctors’ offices. The ubiquitous screens of point-of-care vendors will still have a captive waiting-room audience, but it will be noticeably smaller than it was in 2019. There will simply be fewer waiting rooms and exam rooms in which patients will consume point-of-care content, including Rx product messages.

Weighing ‘treatment tradeoffs’ will weigh heavily on both patients and their care teams.

The current recession will continue into 2021, touching nearly everyone and forcing more people – particularly the under- or uninsured – to choose which bills to pay each month. Weighing ‘treatment tradeoffs’ – prioritizing the treatment of their health conditions based on severity, amount of daily disruption, or treatment costs – will weigh heavily on both patients and their care teams. As in past downturns, many will be forced to ask heart-wrenching questions like, “Is my cancer more critical than my asthma this month, or should I just buy groceries instead?”—and skip doses or refills altogether.

Build on Current Momentum

The biggest opportunities for biopharma in 2021 are to take full advantage of and extend the current, positive public perception of the biopharmaceutical industry. They must collaborate as an industry to quickly develop treatments and vaccines for Covid-19 and other known viruses likely to impact humans—and price them responsibly as a gesture of caring and to acknowledge that taxpayers also funded the R&D to make them possible. Get a seat at the table and earn a voice in telemedicine policies and practices, such as creating opportunities to provide patient support program information as it grows in importance for many customers.

Rethink Your Field Presence

Specific to biopharma field Sales, make these assumptions:

  • Launches will be different
  • Incentives will be different
  • Field force size and performance expectations must be adjusted based on reduced access due to social distancing, telemedicine and other factors

Sales leaders must also reassess the job responsibilities of a DM and sales representative from the ground up to determine what is now essential to the roles, and which types of value can be created and delivered without in-person office visits or live speaker programs. It’s also important to understand that some sales representatives may no longer be comfortable with the health risks associated with calling on hospitals or long-term care facilities in an era of highly-contagious viruses, so they will require additional flexibility or reassignment.

Plan for Alternative Futures

I recommend that biopharma brand marketers take annual brand planning even more seriously for 2021, and really think through scenarios, contingencies and continuity plans as a hedge against these uncertain times. Also, the foundation of all product launches must be digital, and if circumstances permit then add sales reps and live events — not the other way around. Finally, build the infrastructure and processes to deliver all product information and patient support in a contactless manner—including patients without access to broadband or a smartphone.

Imagine in detail the potential impact each of our todays will have on our tomorrows.

While it’s essential for our mental health that we focus on one day at a time, we must also take time to imagine in detail the potential impact each of our todays will have on our tomorrows.


Author: Joe Shields

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