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Covid-19 redefines rules of customer engagement

Oli Hudson, Content Director at Wilmington Healthcare, explores how the pandemic has changed pharma’s relationship with HCPs.

Covid-19 has radically altered the way that pharma engages with its NHS customers, as face-to-face meetings have been largely abandoned; digital liaison has become the norm and collaborative working has enabled solutions to be developed at speed.

However, it is not just the channels and style that have changed, industry has also been under pressure to tailor the content of its communications to help support healthcare professionals (HCPs) during the covid crisis.

In this article, we will explore how pharma’s relationship with the NHS has been evolving during the pandemic and how covid-19 continues to influence what HCPs need from industry.

Face-to-face engagement

The question now is if or when regular face-to-face meetings with NHS customers will resume for pharma. Currently, trusts have individual policies about social distancing and remote access. However, generally, until the pandemic is at level 1, non-essential visits to hospitals will remain difficult.

Looking to the future, even when the pandemic is over, there is a sense that pharma’s style of engagement with the NHS has already changed forever. For example, a recent PM Society survey showed that 26 percent of GPs expected regular face-to-face contact before the pandemic, compared to 12 percent afterwards. There was also a marked change among secondary care doctors, with some variation between specialties.

While evidence suggests that some specialties may still require regular face-to-face engagement post-pandemic, industry should expect that most of its contact with the NHS will be online. So, virtual meetings are likely to permanently replace face-to-face contact in many circumstances and marcoms programmes will need to incorporate integrated digital channels in various forms.

To differentiate itself in this space and engage with the varied stakeholders who are emerging in new integrated care organisations, industry must be imaginative with its digital engagement strategy and ensure that it is tailored to different stakeholder groups, and gives NHS HCPs what they want and need.

Diversifying communication

An international survey from Accenture, entitled: “Reinventing Relevance New Models for Pharma Engagement with Healthcare Providers in a COVID-19 World,” says: “healthcare providers are seeing pharma companies diversify their communication beyond product information and are finding more value in additional support services from pharma such as education on remote support and digitized patient information.”

According to the report, 82 percent of HCPs say they have seen pharma companies change what they communicate about, delivering not just product information, but support that meets their most pressing needs.

Pharma support services that HCPs find more helpful now than before the covid-19 crisis include – digital patient education (69 percent) and information on how treatment options may change post covid-19 (69 percent). This is followed by education on how to better treat patients remotely (67 percent).

The need for pharma to support the NHS in such ways and the new opportunities that this could bring were further supported by data in the report which showed how healthcare providers are guiding patients in selecting new therapies and utilizing new devices and apps in order to adapt to the realities of covid-19.

One in five patients has switched therapy as a result of covid-19; while 44 percent of patients used new devices or apps to help manage conditions during covid-19 and 90 percent of those wanted to continue using them, according to an Accenture Patient Survey May 2020.

Partnership working 

Another critical change that has occurred as a result of the pandemic and which will have a major impact on industry’s future success is partnership working.  From accelerating clinical trials to supplying essential products at speed, covid-19 has brought unprecedented changes in working practices as protocols have been set aside and life sciences companies have worked with the NHS, as well as regulatory bodies and academia.

Such partnerships were explored in a recent webinar: “Out of adversity…rapid change, NHS and industry working together”, chaired by HSJ editor Alastair McLellan.  A key message from the webinar was that fighting covid-19 was like fighting a war and in their shared determination to defeat the enemy, pharma and the NHS have formed a new bond.

Interestingly pharma companies have also been working with each other on vaccines and sharing both data and patients when conducting clinical trials. This has been unprecedented in terms of the scale on which it has happened, and it is really important for the future.


Coronavirus has changed the NHS customer landscape beyond recognition and, as the threat of a second wave looms, it is impossible to predict what will happen during the coming months and what new challenges the NHS may face.

However, it is clear that digital is the future for HCPs, patients and pharma alike and that industry must increasingly tailor its communication channels and content to reflect the seismic shift that coronavirus has precipitated in the past few months.

Pharma companies have already shown how they can work in true partnership with each other and with the NHS during the pandemic.  Industry must build on its achievements so far, strengthen the new relationships that have been formed and keep that wartime spirit alive through the challenges that lie ahead.