Physicians are willing and even eager to hear from pharma, if not in person. They’re mildly satisfied with the level of care they can provide via telehealth and the patient outcomes resulting from those visits. And they believe policy changes designed to bolster telehealth during the COVID-19 era may be temporary.

Those were among the revelations in “Managing Uncertainty: Helping Physicians Survive in the Short-Term and Thrive in the Long-Term,” a report authored by AbelsonTaylor and Veeva. The study, based around a survey of 550 doctors conducted in late May and early June, paints a picture of a profession coping well with the uncertainty that characterizes most aspects of circa-2020 life – but not all that happy about it.

“We’re living in what we’re calling a ‘hybrid reality.’ Going forward, physicians want to know what the new normal might look like and they want some help in dealing with the uncertainty,” said Amanda Hartzmark, PhD, senior director of marketing intelligence at AbelsonTaylor.

Increasingly, physicians are looking to pharma for that help. Fifty-nine percent of doctors said they would like to hear from pharmaceutical partners daily (4%), weekly (23%) or monthly (32%), up from 50% in March.

Asked what they need from pharma to more effectively communicate with patients, physicians pointed to a range of digital tools, including digital fliers/brochures (45%), virtual chat (36%) and apps (34%). They’re keen to receive more information on clinical trial updates (25%), additional patient support resources (21%) and patient treatment protocols for the post-COVID-19 environment (16%).

Those needs aren’t being fully met. “What a lot of brands have done in this crisis situation is PDF existing brochures into digital ones, but that doesn’t suit the needs physicians have right now,” Hartzmark said. “[Physicians] want to communicate digitally [with patients] in a different manner, but they’re not ready to do it. They’re uncertain what materials they’ll need and are looking for help with it.”

The study also revealed continued uncertainty around the future of rep access. Fifty-two percent of respondents said they would not allow any in-person rep visits through August 31, with oncologists the most likely (78%) to halt all visits.

At the same time, Veeva VP, business consulting Dan Rizzo noted that virtual rep engagements with physicians generally last longer than 30 minutes, or roughly four times the duration of a typical in-person interaction. “[Reps] are balancing the reintroduction of face-to-face with what’s been successful in virtual engagement,” he said.

As for telehealth, Rizzo noted that physicians have increased usage of it by 72% over the same period in 2019. During the week they were surveyed, physicians estimated that 48% of their patient visits were conducted virtually.

Some concerns remain, however. While 66% of physicians are “somewhat satisfied” or “neutral” with the quality of care they can provide via telehealth and 70% are “somewhat satisfied” or “neutral” with patient outcomes stemming from telehealth consults, only 48% believe they have the tools they need to make a “differential diagnosis” from afar.

“Some specialists you wouldn’t expect have done a great job of adapting [to telehealth], even though you’d think it would be hard for them,” Hartzmark said. “But others, like cardiologists, are frustrated by the lack of diagnostics and don’t know what they’re going to do with telemedicine down the road.”

She added, however, that even informed speculation is challenging as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on multiple levels. To that end, 64% of physicians believe that recent policy changes around telehealth and privacy are temporary.

“Everything could be completely different two weeks from now,” Hartzmark said. “But it’s important to remember that this is not a crisis without opportunity. There’s a real moment here to be able to communicate better across the board with physicians and patients.”