As if physicians were not already challenging to see in person, layer on COVID-19, and now it's impossible. No office visits, no programs, no conferences. Sales and marketing teams are working diligently to figure out how to engage providers during this time while being careful of how product and company messaging could be perceived. Two components of this challenge are:
Figuring out the channels that reach your target audience during a time when you cannot visit them (queue digital, more on that later)
Providing useful content through those channels that makes it past a plethora of other information (queue content marketing, more on that later)
We spoke to a physician panel comprised of diverse specialties to get their perspectives on how their days have changed and the implications for how receptive they might be to industry messages. We gathered their thoughts on five topics below, identified themes, and provided seven takeaways that can apply to pharma, biotech, or medical device companies.
- How their patient interactions have changed
- Where they are getting their information
- Longer-term implications they foresee due to the current shift in care
- What they would like to see/hear from industry
- Key challenges that concern them during this crisis
These are personal perspectives and are not representative of the physicians’ employers or institutions.
Physicians are essential workers; however, they loosely fall into three groups during this pandemic:
Actively fighting COVID-19 in ERs and ICUs around the country
Focused on procedures/surgeries/treatments or follow-up that are essential
Focused on cases that are deemed elective and, therefore, have significantly reduced schedules
While the abundance of news stories has given us an idea of the challenges faced by the first group, the other two groups have also had their workdays upended. They are limited in the ways they can engage with patients. Like many of us, they are also coping with fear and potential salary or job cuts.
If you only have 1 minute, read our 8 key takeaways. read now If you have 5 minutes, read on to see what they shared and how we how got there.
1. How their patient interactions have changed
Their days have changed dramatically in the past month. One physician stated, "I've been physically exhausted 90% of my professional career, so in some ways, this isn't that different but the types of decisions and learnings we need are very different." They have to determine which cases are elective vs. urgent vs. emergent. There is no precedent or playbook.
As a pain interventionalist and proceduralist, the majority of Dr. Pritzlaff's procedural volume is temporarily suspended. While his patients include the young and old, dealing with chronic pain to terminal illnesses, many of these procedures are considered elective. During this time, he would like to do more to ensure his patients are getting optimal care. Dr. Kurian, a bariatric surgeon, has seen a similar reduction in her surgeries.
Dr. Delio, a neurologist, and Dr. Guleserian, a pediatric thoracic and congenital heart surgeon, are dealing with a number of essential visits. Patients come into the office for a consultation, but, as one provider shared, "the anxiety level has gone up as I am unable to socially distance from patients who need to see us, and we don't know their COVID-19 status when they come to the office."
Each hospital or office has different COVID-19 testing protocols. It is not yet standard to have test results back before a visit, procedure, or surgery. With a large portion of positive patients not showing symptoms, providers mentioned that they need to assume and act as if a patient is positive and wear full Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
Non-essential visits have been converted to phone calls or video chats. HIPAA compliance, reliable connectivity, and ease of use are challenges these physicians are addressing. Adoption has been most challenging for patients who have never used the technology before or who have limited internet connectivity. Telemedicine has generally been good, but, in some cases, there's no substitute for seeing a patient in person.
2. Where they are getting their information
They are using more virtual platforms, phone calls, emails, and texts to connect with colleagues. Topics range from routine administrative matters to discussing protocols and setting expectations based upon rapidly emerging COVID-19 data. For some, there is less reliance on communication features in electronic medical records, such as EPIC.
They are spending significantly more time online. "I can't imagine going through this without access to social media or the Internet. The ability to disseminate info and reassess data daily is a gift," shared one physician. They are navigating how to best treat patients and take care of healthcare workers by learning from others around the country and outside of the US. Digital resources have become vital.
They are receiving emails from or visiting websites related to public health (CDC, local public health organizations), academic sites (Johns Hopkins), social media medical groups (Twitter, for example), research collaboratives, digital journals, societies, and other guideline bodies. Several societies are offering helpful specialty-specific webinars while others are sending out general COVID-19 updates. As a result, some providers are beginning to feel COVID-19 information fatigue.
Pharmaceutical, biotech, and medical device representatives are reaching out regularly via email and text. Reading print journals has slowed due to the lag time between when COVID-19 data or articles come out and when a print journal is published.
3. Longer-term implications they foresee due to the current shift in care
They are concerned about the backlog of patients who will need tests, procedures, or treatments once restrictions are lifted. One provider mentioned, "many who are due for a follow-up MRI or lab test are going to rush to those centers once the social bans are lifted, and those locations will probably not be able to handle that influx easily." They are concerned that some patients may not have had their medical conditions optimized during this crisis. On the flipside, some patients will fear to come in or be lost due to their new unemployed status and lost health insurance.
There is an ongoing challenge to ensure all staff, including administration, understand the distinction between emergent vs. urgent. All are trying to minimize exposure and risk at the potential cost of patients needing additional procedures or treatments in the future as a result. Staff is starting to think about implications in terms of how payers might react negatively to the financial consequences; however, providers are prioritizing what they think is best based on information that is evolving daily.
These physicians believe telemedicine will grow after easing of restrictions, although one provider highlighted that "reimbursement will be important...CMS changed reimbursement for telemedicine visits during the pandemic and reimburses them the same as office visits. It is unknown if it will continue." What other payers will do is also unknown. Another implication is the freeze on hiring and retirement due to financial concerns. Freezes are happening to a great extent in private practices.
4. What they would like to see/hear from industry
Many companies are reaching out with a lot of COVID-19 information—what they’re doing to fight COVID-19, how they’re serving the community, resources during the pandemic, etc. As providers are saturated with COVID-19 information, they would prefer industry to focus on short emails or content that give them relevant product highlights, what is new related to the product, or information that can help them do their jobs during this pandemic. This information should not take significant time to read or understand.
They shared that sales/clinical specialists are essential for educational resources and information. Companies should have systems in place to provide sample medications or product materials when representatives cannot visit.
As providers are trying to plan for how they are going to address the backlog of patients, they are hoping companies are thinking through how their teams can be flexible and available to respond. They are hoping for reassurance that there will not be a shortage of support from the industry when restrictions are lifted.
5. Key challenges that concern them during this crisis
Ensuring sufficient PPE, preparing for unexpected patient surges, and making sure their teams are not at risk are three shared and ongoing challenges. One physician mentioned that there is "palpable anxiety with physicians and nurses, and it is not trivial."
Another challenge is the need to continually assimilate new data to influence day-to-day decisions. As the COVID-19 crisis is rapidly evolving, decisions and protocols are required to change quickly. It can be challenging to ensure everyone is on the same page.
- Providers are online a lot these days. Meet them where they are. Social channels, societies, digital journals, and other guideline entities are good places to provide content if they allow it.
- Succinct product messages are preferred. While it is helpful to acknowledge challenging times and the pandemic, companies should not feel obligated to be a central resource for COVID-19 information. Providers are receiving a tremendous amount of COVID-19 content. Focus product messages on updates or information that is helpful to the providers' practices during this time.
- They are dealing with fear and a lot of the same feelings as the rest of us. As a consumer of content yourself, be mindful of messages that make you feel like someone is out of touch, inconsiderate, or self-promoting and ensure your content could not come across that way.
- Think about how your team will accommodate a patient surge and determine what you can say about it now. There will be a high demand for sales representative/clinical specialist support once restrictions are lifted. Offices will require samples, materials and education as procedures move forward. Think through what you might be able to say about your plan now to provide reassurance.
- Determine if it makes sense for your company to create an online hub for marketing materials or other resources. In the absence of your field support, how can clinics and offices access materials? This one may not be right for all companies, but it should be considered as providers are looking for new ways to access information typically provided by company representatives.
- Use print journals strategically. They may not be the best place to run the bulk of ads right now due to the gap in time between how quickly things are changing with COVID-19 and when something is printed. If you are trying to get something out quickly, consider alternatives.
- Think through how greater use of telemedicine and virtual visits could impact your company and team. Assume that telemedicine use will continue to grow. The growth may prompt you to alter the tools you create for physicians to use with patients, but it also may mean the providers want to conduct fewer in-person visits with industry as well. This could translate to more e-details, digital ad boards, etc.
- Revisit your Direct-to-Patient (DTP) or Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) campaign. Providers have limited ways to reach and engage patients right now. Is your campaign reaching their patients in the right ways? Are there any changes you should make knowing the provider is having fewer in-person conversations? Like the rest of us, patients are also having their mental health tested.
Executing a strong digital and content marketing strategy is hard work. It can be even more challenging during a time like this or if these tactics are newer for your company. We are here to help.
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Grey Matter Marketing is a full-service, award-winning PR and marketing agency working exclusively with healthcare companies. We deliver the expertise and experience so clients can make better business decisions and see better business results. Contact us and let us help you create more effective outreach strategies during this unprecedented time.