It’s a trend that’s been bandied about at healthcare conferences for years: Doctors who interact with world-class customer-care organizations like Amazon, Peloton and Apple in their personal lives want similar experiences from the pharmaceutical and med-tech companies, professional websites and clinical apps they use while on the clock.

A new study strengthens the case that physicians are people, too, quantifying just how much they use digital tools on the job. The findings pose a challenge to healthcare marketers – if not to ensure their messaging is on-par with the aforementioned companies, then at least to try and keep up with the changes.

Over the last four years, according to Clarivate’s “Taking the Pulse” U.S. survey, physicians’ total number of hours worked per week has risen, including the amount of time spent with electronic health records and accessing online resources. Yet the average number of patients seen per week has largely held constant (see chart).

“What that tells me is that there are probably more drug interactions and more chronic conditions requiring intensive care,” explained Matt Titus, chief commercial officer at medical app firm Epocrates, which assisted Clarivate with the research. 

Routine physicals are likely giving way to more intensive visits, he added. “They’re having to triangulate information more, based on the amount of time they’re spending with online resources. That’s a huge shift.”

The rise in overall digital savviness refracts into a myriad of other web-based activities. For one, meeting professional learning requirements has largely become a virtual affair. 

The mean number of continuing medical education hours completed online was more than three times the number earned in-person – 35 hours versus 11, according to the survey. Not surprisingly, a majority of those polled (63%) chalked up their preference for eCME to its added flexibility. 

Researchers examined the top HCP websites used to access such content. Those who received eCME credit hours expressed affinity for Medscape (58%), UpToDate (44%) and Doximity (42%), followed by two association websites, American Family Physician (29%) and American Medical Association (27%).

While many physicians migrated to online CME, a still-healthy 47% agreed that they receive “more valuable” education from in-person CME sources than from eCME. In fact, when it came to non-certified (i.e, promotional) med ed, the scale tipped slightly in favor of in-person or “no preference.” 

As for their interest in receiving pharma-sponsored CME, fewer clinicians (41%) raised their hand. But among those docs, 71% reported a positive impact, rating commercially backed CME a 4 or 5 on a five-point impact scale.

Online CME, along with online conferences and online peer-to-peer interaction, were the only channels to see an uptick in both use and influence. Several online channels saw increased use with the pandemic – including traditional search, which saw a 5% increase in weekly reach versus 2020, and EHRs, which rose 2%. Channels whose usage held steady year-on-year included HCP-specific websites and physician-only social networks. 

“KOLs who were once standing in front of an audience of thousands at a major medical conference are now critiquing back and forth with each other on social channels about releases of key data or during an online conference,” Titus noted. “COVID-19 has really normalized the fact that it’s okay to do a lot of communication and learning, and to access these tools, online.

“Whereas maybe you said, ‘That was 10% of my workday,’ now it’s maybe 90%,” added Titus of the online shift. “Physicians are accelerating becoming digital humans in their work lives, as well.”

Delving into respondents’ favorite information resources, the researchers found that doctors prefer independent channels, like non-pharma websites and apps, to pharma ones (73% versus 27%) when it comes to getting practice support. More than one in three rely on pharma sources as product and patient resources, however.

The researchers noted that the kinds of clinical information made available to HCPs at conferences have become harder to access. Pandemic-related changes, they confirmed, have negatively impacted access to the kinds of professional resources seen at medical meetings. 

Among doctors attending conferences, patient financial support services saw a net 35% decrease in visibility, with patient support resources (-33%) and prevention and wellness (-20%) similarly declining. Practice support tools did not emerge unscathed from the pandemic, either, with KOL presentations seeing a 32% net decrease, followed by conference summaries/updates (-29%) and formulary info (-14%). Among product-related resources, accessibility of pipeline and other info on upcoming drugs fell a net 31%, followed by new product results/MOAs (-29%) and clinical trial research (-19%). 

As an industry, healthcare firms need to work on making these resources easier to find, Titus stressed. Especially in light of the ongoing quest to find the ideal information mix when engaging doctors, the results have particular relevance. What’s the ideal formula for an increasingly digital post-pandemic world? Hybrid format conferences, per the data. 

Overall, 67% answered that “in-person” was their preferred way of attending conferences. Of the 33% who responded “online,” 8% want live and 25% are okay with recorded content.

As further support for a hybrid approach, 76% agreed that the ability to listen to conference sessions at “the time that works best for me” makes online conferences very appealing, while 68% said the value of in-person conferences “can never be replaced” with online events. Just 28% of respondents said they’re able to network as effectively at virtual conferences as they are in person.

There’s some “nostalgia” behind doctors’ affinity for in-person meetings, Titus added. The busier they get, the choosier they become about where and when they receive their education. Larger medical events have recognized this by adding an online component.  

“We’ll see a mixed modality,” Titus predicted. “Where medicine has evolved the last two to three years in patient care, physicians don’t have a ton of time or patience to go to four different conferences in different parts of the country. That aspect has changed.”

That said, most (70%) of physicians have become comfortable with online conferences, even as they said they would like more interactive sessions (with breakouts and better networking) and easier access to content, including archived presentation materials. At virtual meetings, journal abstracts (44%) and Q&A sessions (42%) were the most utilized online features.

The dynamic of less free time – and less patience for impersonal pitches from industry – is “the danger pharma marketers are running into now,” Titus said.

“If [marketers] aren’t creating really targeted, specialized campaigns to deliver the right message to the right audience at the right time… these doctors don’t have time to sort through that stuff. And I can’t afford to have my message, brand or the way I communicate with that physician be considered spam.”