What pharma companies want from their agencies

NFA Health's Dorothy Czylyski lays out the asks she's gotten as health brands look for more insights and digital transformation.

By Dorothy Czylyski

We’ve been talking about the impetus to innovate digitally for a long time in the pharmaceutical industry – but as often is the case, necessity is the mother of invention, and a slow digital transformation in the pharma world was detonated the moment COVID-19 took hold.

But change means opportunity, one that has translated into 400% growth for NFA Health over the last 10 months, and that has helped other agencies big and small keep their heads above water.

That’s because since the beginning of the pandemic, pharma has been forced to adapt and execute its well laid-out brand plans in a more agile and savvy way (not unlike everyone else). But brands have also needed to adapt and replace traditional tools of the trade within an arena where communications are already strictly regulated.

So while brands in healthcare and pharma still need specialized expertise and knowledge, 2020 also brought forth a lot of asks that required a new appreciation of customer behavior, cultural trends, and digital transformation.

Insight-Based Strategy

Obviously this is not new to a lot of people reading this, but for pharma companies, it has become more important in this new environment as they take a closer look at how consumers think of their brands in the context of their own health. How are people actually feeling about their condition? How is decision making unfolding with respect to treatment? What is the gap between what we believe about our health, and how we act on it? What brings hope to those facing some of the most profound challenges of their lives?

For example, it has become evident in this pandemic era, that patients with chronic diseases are managing them more acutely – offsetting some of the challenges patients otherwise face with medication adherence and lifestyle. Companies that have invested to understand these critical nuances and have adapted their brand strategies based on the answers, have also positioned themselves for a stronger competitive advantage, even while the ground is shifting beneath them. So before engaging in any kind of tactic that is geared towards physicians or patients, it is imperative that you know exactly what problem you are solving.

Interactive Medical Education

With less face-to-face interaction with pharma sales reps, physicians and other healthcare providers are exhibiting more interest in medical education. But the old ways of providing medical education programs aren’t cutting it in a virtual setting, as much of the draw for attending these kinds of events is the peer-to-peer interaction. Physicians are simply not seeing value in PowerPoint presentations of data slides anymore.

New educational experiences that break from these conventions are being called for, offering knowledge sharing through custom rich media platforms that incorporate video and interactivity coupled with analytics, while at the same time encouraging discussion and participant control over treatment paths and decision points.

To create these platforms, we have looked to analogues from consumer digital experiences to serve as the basis of design. One example looked to the travel industry and booking a vacation online based on individual preferences. In this program, Oncologists were presented with suggested treatment options based on a variety of patient characteristics and decision factors that they selected. Another was to film a series of videos depicting patient journey’s with Diabetes. Based on treatment selections that physicians made at various timepoints within the journey, they were able to direct the narrative of the movie and land on a desirable patient outcome.

Both of these formats have significantly driven end-user interest and participation, with many more physicians choosing to learn in this new way compared to what has been done in the past.

A Push for Patient Engagement and Activation

While skepticism still lingers about pharmaceutical companies and their motives, it is harder to deny the importance they play in facilitating patient health. More and more, pharmaceutical companies are looking for new ways to speak directly to patients and caregivers, empowering them to have educated conversations with their healthcare providers.

Even in Canada, where the regulations around direct-to-consumer advertising are very strict, pharmaceutical companies have had more desire to launch campaigns geared directly towards patients via digital and social channels. The ones who have tried it in this past year have had better than anticipated results, driving higher than expected engagement and conversions among patients.

Pharmaceutical companies that were willing to adapt quickly and try things they never have before, are finding that the adaptations they have made will revolutionize their marketing practices in the years to come. For agencies, enabling clients to keep up with the rapid changes in the healthcare space and looking to the consumer space for ideas on how to reach physicians and patients more effectively, will likely lead to more impactful solutions and better engagement.

Dorothy Czylyski is president of NFA Health, No Fixed Address’ healthcare and pharmaceutical division.