Even in the best of times and under the most ideal conditions, navigating the health system can be a fraught process. Perhaps that’s a big reason why, even as in-person routes to treatment have opened up again, the ease of online access to a doctor was and is so alluring for many patients.

But the pandemic wasn’t only a proof point for telemedicine’s consumer demand. Direct-to-consumer care platforms became a coronavirus contingency plan for drug marketers, too, with many pharma brands launching with telemedicine/pharmacy integration built right in. That trend has continued, say those with experience in such pairings. 

To learn more about the prevalence of telemedicine within pharma’s promotional ecosystem – as well as its increasing value to marketers – MM+M sat down with Ray Rotolo, chief product officer and co-founder of virtual care media platform Populus Media, and Claudia Ciciliano, senior director of digital strategy and planning at Bayer.

This conversation took place in advance of MM+M’s second annual Media Summit, coming up on December 2. To view the full agenda and register for the event, click here.

MM+M: How commonplace is telemedicine within marketing plans? How is it viewed versus other media channels?

Rotolo: We found at the early stages, it was kind of a, for lack of a better term, new and shiny object. Now it’s become a line item on most marketing plans. And we’ve been getting a number of RFPs where telehealth is considered a line item, in some cases underneath the point-of-care umbrella and in other cases a totally separate one.

So we’re looked at as kind of a hybrid between traditional POC and digital. I would say now that 80% of marketing plans we’ve seen we’re a line item on those plans, which is really exciting for us as a business and for where the industry is moving toward. 

Ciciliano: We’re still in the test-and-learn phase, admittedly. It has to be there in order to future-proof the business, just because of the change in consumer behavior. But I don’t think we’ve cracked the nut yet on exactly what works to drive the business, especially because our product requires a procedure.

For us, at the most basic level, it’s just adopting our business model, thinking about how the consumer and the HCP segment changes and how we create telehealth-specific materials. Then there’s testing and virtual environments – like virtual waiting rooms, advertising in the places where consumers are closer to the point of care within telehealth. And then the most advanced level is building consumer experiences that integrate telehealth. We’re testing all three of those areas, because we have to learn what works and what our consumers really need from us. We’ll just keep on testing and learning until we’ve got that figured out.

MM+M: How does this form of telehealth augment the online experience? 

Rotolo: If you think of telehealth as a user experience on the patient side, we try to provide a better patient experience, first and foremost. It’s not about just driving a patient through and having them sit in the waiting room for the doctor. We’re there to help that patient get a better engagement.

So we provide that content experience within that visit to show them contextually relevant information that can probably help them with their visit and, we believe, create a better outcome. And that’s of course a sponsored experience. So we’re bringing that branded experience into that visit to create what we hope is a better overall patient satisfaction level that’s good for the business, for the brand and also for the patient.

Ciciliano: It goes back to the consumer. Where is she in her journey and how does telehealth help us drive the outcome she’s looking for? For us, it’s really about shortening that journey and path to selecting a product.

Specifically for birth control, it plays a critical role in the counseling phase. You can’t get a procedure with telehealth but you can qualify for the product and you can counsel on the product and we can connect you to a provider. Doing those three things digitally is incredibly valuable, even though you can’t just get a script and go to your pharmacy. You can still shorten that path a bit.

MM+M: That’s a good segue to my next question. A big draw is telemedicine’s potential to consolidate the buying cycle, especially for consumer-driven brands that would typically advertise on TV. How does this allow marketers to shorten the time frame from patient inquiry to ‘script?

Ciciliano: This doesn’t replace the full purchase funnel. For us, it sits squarely in that consideration phase, just to help her to qualify and counsel. So we still have to do the awareness-driving and get her into the doctor’s office. For other brands, it could do a lot because you can go to the store and just pick up a script. You can basically get from diagnosis to delivery through telehealth entirely. We don’t have that benefit, but we see a lot of other brands doing that.

Bayer has other brands that rely very heavily on patient compliance. I’m a consumer myself and get my migraine meds refilled through telehealth. Consumers are getting comfortable with the idea of diagnosis to delivery, so for us, it’s about how we insert ourselves part of the way into that experience, even if we can’t get you all the way to delivery.

Rotolo: The whole key there is providing access. We’re providing, literally and theoretically in most cases, the ability to see a doctor 24/7, 365 days a year. In most cases, if you want to see a doctor in person, you’re still waiting three to six months, especially for specialists. What we provide within our path is the ability to see a doctor – and if medically appropriate, to be written that script in as quickly as 10 minutes. That alone shortens the path to the script.

And because the patient builds trust in the way he or she is seeing their doctor, it opens the ability to ask that doctor more and to potentially get a ‘script written in that regard. The biggest factor there is just being able to see that doctor when you want to, which just naturally shortens that path to a prescription. 

At the upcoming MM+M Media Summit, Rotolo and Ciciliano will speak more about how pharma brands have used telehealth the last 19 months, how it works in concert with digital marketing, typical conversion rates, and some of the keys to such partnerships. Register now!