A Q+A with Kara Dugan, president, Razorfish Health, and MM+M’s GM and editor-in-chief Stephen Madden.

Stephen Madden: You’ve just conducted a pretty exhaustive survey on the main themes physicians are facing in 2021. What’s the biggest takeaway?

Kara Dugan: Data and technology have enormous potential to help marketers re-energize and authentically engage physicians. We found that only 50% of physicians feel the communication to them is in fact, personalized. We’ve always known their prescribing behavior — we now know physicians not only in their lab coat moments, but what we call their “blue jean” moments and can amend that prescribing behavior with their lifestyle data. That allows us to bring the communications to places where we’re understanding their behavioral profiles.

SM: The beauty and sometimes the curse of tech and data is that they’re inextricably linked. One of the nexuses of tech and data is influencers. Do they have a role here?

KD: Absolutely. We like to shift from KOL engagement to COL, which is the connected online leader. They’re both important. In fact, the data suggests that 67% of physicians were interested in more peer-to-peer education, and they are turning to the influencers online to get what’s lacking. The next generation of involvement with these influencers is co-creation of content, which may have certain rules attached to it in pharma. But to really get to the place where our physicians look at that content, maybe with even higher regard than coming from a pharmaceutical company, because it’s coming from peers. 

SM: If doctors would like to have more peer-to-peer educational opportunities, what does that mean for the role of the pharma rep? 

KD: The role of the rep is absolutely central: 80% [of physicians] felt that there’s extreme value in a rep, particularly in new product launches, or new indications. I think of the rep now as an orchestrator. They can’t always be there physically, but they can anticipate the needs of the physician and get creative by orchestrating the content, without the physical contact. Physicians like the interaction of learning from the rep and communicating their needs in terms of adherence programs and patient support to the home office. It’s still a very valued partnership.  

SM: What did you learn in the study about the relationships between physicians and patients?  

KD: The favorite quote of everyone on my team who read the study was “We still have the best job in the world.” And it’s because they ultimately get to improve the lives of patients. In a study we did a few years ago, we found a shift from what we call paternalism to partnership and that’s evolving even further. I remember a story of a patient who brought in a 14-page printout from a medical website, and the physician thinking, “I’m going to have to debunk all the myths in that paper.” That has now shifted to, “I’ve read that, too. What did you take away from that article? Let me share the impact I think this has on your treatment plan.” There really is a shared appreciation of that information, a knowledge that the patient is better off for coming in with that free education and not having to have every single thing explained to them, and that the physician can get to the heart of the matter. A physician can suss out pretty quickly if the patient has an accurate interpretation of the information. And then, presumably, they can move into “What does this mean for your treatment?” and in some ways get the patient to more advanced treatments sooner. 

The favorite quote of everyone on my team who read the study was “We still have the best job in the world.” And it’s because they ultimately get to improve the lives of patients.

SM: What does this study tell you about the state of healthcare, and the state of medicine in 2021?  

KD: There’s hope and optimism for the future. We felt it in the report, because even some of the negative sentiments we’re on the cusp of addressing — whether through data and technology, or through a more educated patient — a lot of the pain points, which are solvable. 

Separate from the study, we’ve read about the Fauci effect of an 18% growth in applications for medical school, and that Gen Z has grown up with the data and the technology that they’re going to expect us as marketers to leverage. It feels like there is a galvanizing of our communities behind healthcare, and those who serve in it, and that elevates us all. The focus on healthcare, on medicine, will create a golden age supported by data and technology.

SM: Do you think that will lead to better health outcomes, which is the real goal here?

KD: I really do. Preventative health is something we’re all talking about now that maybe we didn’t [before] because we have the bias that if we’re healthy, we’ll stay healthy. Now, there are things out of our control that require us to think preventatively. Nothing has made that more apparent than vaccines for things other than COVID-19 — for instance, flu vaccines are having a strong year.

The idea about the HCP and the patient relationship improving makes me think of our sister agency Verilogue that specializes in compliantly analyzing doctor-patient conversations. We can see the difference between interactions in telehealth and in physical visits and we can hear through linguistics interpretations [if a patient] is not OK [even if] the patient answers, “I’m fine, not a whole lot of pain.” How can you train the physician through communications or through speaker programs? How can you train them to dig deeper or to ask without pushing too hard? Those guides help the physician understand that what’s not being said is just as important as what’s being said. 

SM: If you look at whether a patient is being honest about a condition, it’s sort of the same effect that you see in online forums.

KD: You can challenge your physician in a way that you might be uncomfortable doing sitting three feet apart. The other thing is being truthful about symptomatology. There’s anonymity that telehealth provides where you can yield a more honest conversation. That’s why in certain disease states and certain therapeutic areas, telehealth has served physicians extremely well. In other cases, we need a bridge between that physical touch and that digital touch. Again, reps can help us with that bridge by orchestration. It’s a year of silver linings. What do we see that’s worked well, that we can continue to employ in 2021? And what are the things that just didn’t work out that we have to look to data and technology to correct for as best we can?