As the rest of the world flocks to data-driven engagement, pharma remains a stubborn exception. This is true for ads directed at consumers. Despite the industry’s best efforts, it’s also true for communication with doctors. 

For decades, pharma-to-physician marketing mostly took place offline, with companies relying on sales reps to get their messages and products in front of healthcare providers. 

But since the passage of the Physician Payments Sunshine Act in 2010, the percentage of HCPs who do not permit access to medical-industry reps has sharply increased, from 22.9% in 2010 to 36.5% in 2016. In addition, doctors are spending more time on the internet, including during visits with patients. 

Engaging with physicians isn’t as easy as serving them a Google ad. That’s why a number of companies are trying to bridge the communication divide with data-driven tools that help pharma companies improve their connection with healthcare providers. 

First up is Veeva Systems, which takes pharma’s internal lists of physicians and key opinion leaders (KOLs) and digitizes it. In October 2017, the software company launched Veeva Oncology Link, a subscription database of doctors, leaders, and experts in oncology. The platform is designed to help pharma companies quickly identify specialists across indications, which can be of particular importance when a drug is tested across multiple tumor types.

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“You might have one compound that has 14 indications across 14 tumor types,” says Robert Groebel, Veeva’s VP of global medical strategy. “Pharma companies need to take advantage of these innovations in a way that allows them to shrink timelines.”

The database is updated weekly and, in addition to standard information such as names, contact details, and office hours, includes physicians’ activity data (for instance, if the physician is part of the top 100 KOL list in lung cancer in the U.S.). “The real-time element is important because it allows companies to see what is happening in the research community,” notes Kilian Weiss, who oversees Veeva’s KOL data and services division. 


Zephyr Health, one of Veeva’s partners, goes a step further, billing itself as a provider of insights. The company, which raised $33.5 million from backers such as Google Ventures and Kleiner Perkins, connects and analyzes hundreds of data points from public, customer, and vendor sources.

Much of that data relates to individual physicians’ networks. Valuable insights can be gleaned from understanding a doctor’s relationships with other physicians, patients, sales reps, medical school colleges, and co-authors. Zephyr says it can help pharma companies identify high-potential referring providers by analyzing these interlocking webs.

“We have so much data at our fingertips,” says Leilani Latimer, Zephyr’s VP of marketing, partnerships, and commercial operations. “The problem isn’t about getting data. It’s about connecting the data and doing something meaningful with it.”

If Veeva and Zephyr have more than a little in common with Facebook — in that they help pharma companies better target individual physicians and experts based on detailed profile data — DMD is more akin to Google. Through its audience identity manager, DMD shows medical and pharma websites who exactly is visiting their sites.

Traditionally, only large medical publishers — Medscape, Doximity, and others — had access to this data. Often referred to as “private gardens,” these sites require providers to log in using their NPI numbers in exchange for access to news and clinical trial updates.

Medical sites unable to provide the same value-add “had no way to assess identity,” David Reim, DMD’s chief product officer, explains. “People talk about the internet being measurable, but so many sites couldn’t distinguish between high- and low-value visitors.”


DMD works with traditional journals and other publishers, inserting its opt-in language into the general privacy policies of its partners. Reim admits the process is, if not sneaky, very subtle. “None of us read all the way through a privacy policy,” he says.

When physicians give their email address to a medical journal and agree to its terms and services, they might be opting in to DMD’s service, which tags their device. The company has tagged 1.6 million devices to date, with an average of 2.1 devices per individual. “When we started tagging doctors almost two years ago, a majority of tags were from non-mobile devices,” Reim adds. “Today, 68% are coming from mobile.”

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On the client side, DMD inserts a line of code into a site’s browser so it can identify tagged visitors and provide marketers with their NPI numbers, medical specialties, and states of residence in real time. As of December 2017, the company had opted in approximately 768,000 health care providers (roughly 530,000 physicians, 161,000 nurse practitioners or physician assistants, and 77,000 nurses).

DMD is also working on a feature that will tell sites the percentage of traffic that is non-human. While the company’s goal is to help clients increase ROI, it doesn’t go beyond providing the necessary data. “We’re insight-free,” Reim notes.

Meanwhile, Indegene has partnered with Microsoft to create an AI-powered CRM system for pharma reps, which launched in the U.S. this past October. Built for mobile, the platform is designed to streamline workflow and relies heavily on Cortana.

As Indegene cofounder and EVP Gaurav Kapoor describes it, the system responds to voice commands and is able to provide real-time analysis. He gives the example of a sales rep waiting to visit a doctor. Before the meeting the rep “can ask the CRM, ‘What should my next message be?’” Using AI and machine learning, it will supply recommendations based on previous interactions with the physician. 


Finally, there’s IQVIA. According to Richie Etwaru, the company’s chief digital officer, pharma’s engagement troubles are twofold: the communication process is layered and its internal operations are fragmented. “Pharma is the only industry in the world that has a surrogate customer,” he says.

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Unlike retail and travel businesses, pharma companies must communicate with their customers through providers. Complicating this dynamic further, those doctors are no longer the only ones influencing patient decisions. Today, pharmacists, public perception, and patient groups also play large roles.

In addition, workflow across pharma divisions (marketing, sales, medical affairs, and the rest) is typically siloed. This can lead to embarrassing missteps, such as when a company’s marketing department sent out emails detailing a new evidence point to 3,000 doctors in Europe without first educating the sales team.

Physicians asked reps about the email, and they weren’t able to provide answers. “When you have uncoordinated actions between multiple silos targeting multiple stakeholders, you are going to make mistakes,” Etwaru says.

IQVIA’s solution: Orchestrated Customer Engagement (OCE), a platform that integrates apps and workflow across an organization. “Pharma companies can buy single offerings from 12 different vendors,” but it won’t solve the communication problem, Etwaru says. 

OCE lets teams glean insights from one another’s operations. For instance, when a marketing system detects a provider has opened an email, the platform can identify the corresponding sales rep and determine whether to send them an alert.

Connecting these dots “is how pharma will accelerate past just being OK at engagement,” adds Etwaru.