Health care providers (HCPs) have transitioned from navigating shutdowns at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to learning to adjust to a hybrid engagement environment. By necessity, pharmaceutical companies have changed how they engage with providers, moving from primarily in-person interactions to fully virtual and, finally, to a hybrid of in-person and virtual.

During a recent MM+M podcast, editor-in-chief Larry Dobrow moderated a discussion between Ray Gomez, VP of worldwide omnichannel capabilities at Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS), and Shannon Hartley, managing director of life sciences transformation at Ernst & Young LLP (EY US), about the shifting needs of HCPs for information across diverse channels.

Adjusting to omnichannel

As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, EY US initiated a survey to track the impact on HCPs of the shift from in-person to virtual engagement. The research took an in-depth look at “how HCP perceptions are changing, how they’re interacting with both their own patients and with pharmaceutical companies, what’s working, what’s not,” Hartley said. What has become increasingly important is the use of omnichannel as a way of creating “personalization, not just for the physician in terms of their specialty or the individual, but the type of information they’re looking for varies by channel,” she explained.

To “demystify what omnichannel is,” Gomez said, unlike multichannel marketing that places a greater emphasis on the channel, omnichannel puts the customer at the center of the journey. It’s about providing the right content at the right time in the right place for that customer. “It’s key to identify the customer as well as their pain points so we can start a conversation about how they want to be spoken to, and then look at the content that we have to deliver and drive so that it’s meaningful for them — relevancy is key.” Next, consider how often to communicate and which channels are best to reach them.

Keep in mind that “It isn’t a one-size-fits-all,” Hartley said. For product launches, “It is important to have the sales rep explaining the new products.” However, for established products, HCPs prefer receiving information through “websites, reminders and email updates.” In specialties such as oncology, which encounters “a fast-paced change in science, being able to interact with medical peers who are doing new research and with pharmaceutical companies who are leading some of that research” has become critical, Hartley explains.

Changing the mindset

Gomez has found that “it takes a village to truly build an omnichannel game plan because there’s so much orchestration.” Working with a range of stakeholders, it’s imperative to start by “listening and knowing which triggers you need to be turning on and off appropriately,” he said.

“Across the industry, innovative leaders have recognized the importance of omnichannel and being customer-centric,” Hartley said. One of the many lessons COVID-19 taught the leaders at BMS is “that customers’ expectations changed and we need to evolve along with them,” Gomez said. Omnichannel is critical to “meet customers where they want to be met.” To do that well, a company must look at the entire customer journey.

Many believe that omnichannel is synonymous with “getting rid of the salesforce,” Hartley noted. “That is not the case. Instead, it means looking at all channels — digital as well as the personal including sales representatives, the reimbursement specialists, the patient support, the call center and the medical science liaisons — to find how to bring those together in the way that meets the customer at that moment, in the way they want to be engaged,” she explained.

Optimizing the technology

Nearly three years out from the initial shift to virtual engagement, HCPs are still experiencing technology and content challenges. Part of Gomez’s role is to “simplify the experience so we can leverage those tools in the right way.” To do that, everyone on the team must “use the same playbook, the same acronyms and nomenclature.” Technology is ever-changing and it is difficult to stay ahead, so we need to focus on “optimizing what we currently have, while being aware of what’s coming in the future. In other words, let’s not focus too much on the ‘next best thing.’ Let’s better orchestrate the great tools we have at our disposal,” he said.

Technology “is not about finding the brightest, shiniest object,” Hartley added. Its purpose is to support the brand objectives and make it easier for customers, yet for HCPs and patients alike, the technology remains “a bit of a hindrance.” HCPs noted in our research that they are still experiencing challenges with scheduling and the length of virtual details with pharmaceutical companies. They also noted that patients often struggle with the technology for virtual visits and portals, so for many HCP/patient engagements they have returned to in person.

Gomez conceded the industry has a long way to go “to rethink the entire experience.” Pharma companies should re-evaluate their efforts across the four Ds: data, decisions, design and delivery. In its simplest form, have a data strategy that will empower you to better understand what story to tell, make data-based decisions on what’s most important to your customer, design a program that encompasses a robust content strategy and deliver that message on the relevant platforms.

EY US helps clients look at “what other industries are doing and what excellence can look like,” said Hartley. Companies lauded by consumers “understand their needs, meet them where they are and deliver personalized content that’s relevant and meaningful to them,” she explained. Omnichannel does not mean they are omnipresent. “Companies are not there every day but when customers need them, and customers see these companies as a great resource and a partner in that sense,” she said.

Creating a personalized experience

At the end of the day, “data is going to help us tell the story,” Gomez said. With omnichannel, “content is both king and queen. It needs to be specific to the consumer, seamless, automated and relevant to where they are along that journey.”

Content is not solely for promotional purposes. EY US research has found “a greater need for medical education content for HCPs and that they can share with their patients,” Hartley said. “We’ve historically had firewalls between medical and promotion and we’re entering a new era where, in a compliant way, we need to be able to bring medical content and promotional content at the right moment in the journey to the customer.”

That convergence of the medical and commercial and value and access is necessary for pharma brands to create the right customer experience going forward. That requires “having some type of handshake every step of the way, which is what an orchestrated omnichannel experience is all about,” Gomez added.

In this new, faster environment of campaign development and personalization, it’s critical to “keep the customer at the center and continue to innovate around the ways we communicate with them that are going to meet their needs,” Hartley said.

The future is about the customer, “because they’re going to demand that more and more,” Gomez concluded. “If we keep that lens on at all times, it’s going to be the compass to guide us to the right direction.”

The views reflected in this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.