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April 6, 2020

Digital strategy and innovation in medical affairs

An ongoing shift to digital was kicked into high gear by COVID-19. Here’s how it will affect medical affairs teams.
digital strategy and innovation in medical affairs

A medical affairs team functions as the face of a pharmaceutical or medical device company. As such, the ability to communicate accurately, succinctly, and compellingly is critical, considering they act as the informational flow between their organization, the medical community, and consumers at large. 

Digitalism and the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 have contributed to an ongoing, industry-wide paradigm shift, altering industry trends and desired consumer outcomes. 

Recently, there’s been a push to modernize the role medical affairs plays in this space, especially in regard to customer engagement. And as healthcare continues to move toward a stakeholder-centric model – one which involves patients, providers, and payers—medical affairs teams must adapt, or be left behind. 

So, what are the most prevalent trends in digital strategy and innovation in medical affairs? Let’s discuss. 

What is a medical affairs team? 

If you’re wondering, what is medical affairs? – a medical affairs team functions as the bridge between the research and the commercial side of the business. They’re intermediaries working on behalf of medical innovators to compellingly communicate with patients, policymakers, and physicians. 

For instance, when a new drug, therapeutic, or device emerges from clinical development and prepares to launch, medical affairs may be tasked with championing its use cases and benefits to consumers  and HCPs using clinical, scientific, and statistical real world evidence. 

Depending on the organization and its size, a medical affairs team may include some, if not all, of the following roles: 

  • Associate Director of Medical Affairs
  • Clinical Trial Liaison (CTL)
  • Director of Medical Affairs
  • Head of Medical Affairs
  • Health Economics and Outcomes Researcher (HEOR)
  • Medical Advisor
  • Medical Affairs Manager
  • Medical Affairs Operations Director
  • Medical Affairs Trainer
  • Medical Affairs Vice President
  • Medical Director
  • Medical Information Officer
  • Medical Lead
  • Medical Science Liaison (MSL)
  • Regional Scientific Manager
  • Senior Medical Advisor

What does a medical affairs team do? And what is this department’s role within a pharmaceutical company? First and foremost, they are communicators. According to TriNet Pharma:

“Externally and internally to a pharmaceutical organization, the generation and communication of accurate medical and scientific information is a key activity of Medical Affairs professionals. Medical Affairs experts are the face of the company and their scientific and clinical expertise helps them facilitate the flow of information between the medical community and the organization.”

But it’s important to note that the medical affairs team aren’t salespeople. They’re not there to overtly convince consumers to purchase a medical product. Instead, they’re a non-promotional source for scientific information. This is in response to federal regulations around the separation of medical and commercial activities within pharmaceuticals. There are very specific medical affairs skills and responsibilities that people in this role must perfect. 

Depending on the scope of service, organizational structure, and the company’s mission or medical affairs KPIs, that function may include a wide variety of responsibilities, including:  

  • Relationship building – Medical affairs leaders should be focused on engaging and dialoguing with key opinion leaders (KOL), and stakeholders. Effective KOL mapping requires medical affairs teams to engage in strategic long-term planning via an open communication channel.  
  • Medical education – This includes the planning of medical education of healthcare providers and training of internal teams.
  • Post-launch clinical trials – Medical affairs is regularly involved with the planning and execution of phase III and IV interventional and observational studies. 
  • Product lifecycle management – To maximize the value of a product, it takes collaboration across an entire organization throughout the product’s lifecycle—from drug development to launch. According to Global Forum, “Medical Affairs plays a critical role in such tasks as new formulations, new administration routes, revised dosages, new indications, and patient population expansion.” 
  • Medical information services – Centralized call centers help distribute medical information in response to drug-related inquiries.  
  • Health economics and outcome-research (HEOR) activities – Performing research and conveying results relating to the product value.   
  • Medical communications – Writing, supporting, and spreading peer-reviewed publications and similarly related medical or scientific documents. 
  • Strategic activities – Developing and championing a medical brand strategy for every product and then collaborating with R&D and commercial to bring that about.   

Digital strategy and innovation for medical affairs

The field of medical affairs is rapidly changing, thanks in part to digitalization and the events surrounding COVID-19. 

Going forward, pharmaceutical companies that drive the industry forward must evolve their marketing, training, and educational approach while leveraging digital technologies and data to differentiate their products and services and drive digital innovation. 

While there are several undercurrents impacting the industry as a whole, looking forward to 2022, here are three trends industry experts are tracking:

#1: Increased relevance of medical affairs 

In recent years, medical affairs teams have become a more prominent voice within pharmaceutical companies. Besides R&D and commercial, there are few departments that can have as great an impact on an organization as a whole, particularly when it comes to progress and modernization. Per PharmaPhorum:

“Medical Affairs teams are collaborating with other departments more than ever – partly because of expiring corporate integrity agreements, partly due to the rich datasets and insights generated by medical affairs, but also partly because of a trend toward collaboration-centric and cross-functional ways of working.”

Whether it’s regulatory developments, challenges with reimbursements, or a mercurial stakeholder environment, there’s massive change happening across the pharmaceutical sector as companies seek to embrace digital transformations and technologies. 

Medical affairs departments are uniquely positioned to address such issues and spur innovation. As the Journal of mHealth notes, medical affairs teams can drive a data-driven and stakeholder-focused ethos by:

  • Embracing digital engagements
  • Incorporating real-world medical evidence
  • Personalizing content
  • Demonstrating value via measurable objectives

#2: The role of digital startups  

From AI applications to telehealth services, digitalism is completely transforming the healthcare landscape. Seemingly every day, there are new products and services that disrupt the market, completely altering how medical providers and developers communicate, collaborate, and innovate. 

But, contrary to what newcomers to the industry might initially presume, much of this innovation is not emerging from the workshops of already established pharmaceutical companies; rather, they’re the offspring of digital startups. According to Robert Stevens, Head of Digital Strategy and Medical Innovation, US Clinical Development, and Medical Affairs at Novartis: 

“There has been an explosive growth in entrepreneurialism fueling an external ecosystem of digital health start-ups. Many of the start-ups I’ve met with were started because one of the founders encountered a problem in the healthcare system and was compelled to take the initiative—and risk—to make a difference.”

Medical affairs teams have to reevaluate how they respond to digital start-up disruptors. Instead of adamantly sticking to historic strategies, it’s better for established pharmaceutical companies and medical affairs teams to mimic the startup mentality by being willing to take risks, pivot, and collaborate. 

For this to occur, there must be an organizational behavioral change. And once more, medical affairs teams can and should lead this charge. 

#3: A customer-centric care model 

The shift towards digitalism has indelibly shifted consumer behavior across all industries. Now, customers don’t simply expect convenience, control, and collaboration when it comes to their online shopping experience—they demand it in all aspects of their life. 

Put simply, it raised their technological expectations across the board. 

Now, patients have more options, greater visibility, and an increased willingness to shop around for medical patient care, services, and products. Because of this, modern patient-consumers are increasingly taking a more active role in their healthcare decision-making.  

In response to the demand for personalized healthcare delivery, healthcare providers have to go to even greater lengths to optimize their care delivery and differentiate themselves based on patient outcomes. Additionally, they must engage and partner with a broader range of key stakeholders to better understand the needs of patients and then provide concrete solutions. 

Naturally, this transition to a customer-centric model has impacted how healthcare professionals engage with patients. What once was an area of business that was primarily compliance-based has, by necessity, shifted toward understanding and addressing patients’ needs, experiences, and values. 

As a result, medical professionals are turning to pharmaceutical companies—and more specifically, their medical affairs team—to provide consumers with digestible, non-promotional, scientific content and engagement. 

So, how do you deliver a positive customer experience and interaction in medical affairs? In addition to following basic medical affairs compliance, you must also be aware of specific criteria. 

According to Harvard Business Review, there are three core criteria to look for:

  • It must have a human-centered design that creates a seamless user experience—wherever the user is located.
  • It must draw on a rich data set to be optimized for each individual user.
  • There needs to be transparency in how data is obtained and used across all channels.     

Empowering your medical affairs team

The healthcare landscape is quicksilver. It’s constantly changing. And the emergence of digital technology has only spurred that transformation onward. 

For medical affairs teams – tasked with gathering scientific and medical data and disseminating critical information to healthcare professionals – staying atop the shifting tides and emerging trends can be a monumental challenge.

Fortunately, as we’ve discussed above, there are digital technologies that can empower medical affairs teams to thrive in a patient-centric, digital space. 

Within3’s virtual communication platform makes it possible to identify and map KOLs and engage with key stakeholders anytime, anywhere, and on any connected device. It comes with a suite of powerful tools that help facilitate communication, foster deeper engagement, and help your team make smarter decisions. 

Check out our recent case study to learn more.

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