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Medical affairs in a digital-first world: Benefits and challenges.

From telehealth to decentralised trials, the entire healthcare industry has realised the true value of digitalisation in recent years. Medical affairs teams are no exception. Here, we discuss the benefits and challenges of engaging medical professionals on digital channels.

The pharmaceutical community has reached somewhat of a turning point as it commercialises a growing number of speciality medicines relying on complex new treatment pathways. With this comes new hope for previously underserved patient populations. But educating the world of physicians about these new medicines and collaborating with healthcare professionals on trials and other important initiatives is critical to their commercial success.

Acting as a go-between for pharma and physicians, medical science liaisons (MSLs) are responsible for communicating necessary information about new medicines to healthcare professionals and key opinion leaders (KOLs). Traditionally, these detailed scientific discussions took place in person. As with many aspects of the medical world, they are now shifting online. This was a necessary change to keep medical affairs moving during pandemic lockdowns. Nowadays, it is an active choice many pharma companies and service providers are taking.

Digital-first medical affairs can help to drive more collaborative projects over a larger geographical footprint, including real-world data initiatives. The insights gathered here may tell a different story compared to those collected in a tightly controlled clinical trial. The generation of this ‘real-world evidence’ after the commercialisation of pharmaceutical products is becoming increasingly important and often leads to new insights in the medical community. Sometimes, this data can be helpful in a market access setting to inform or support pricing and reimbursement procedures.

A fresh approach

For some companies, a data-driven, digital-first approach has been natural. Offering next-generation pharma services, Abacus Medicine Pharma Services established its Commercial Partnerships division during the pandemic and has always taken a digital-first strategy to medical affairs. Throughout those initial years, the company’s dynamic team of medical advisors and market access experts established a large pan-European network of healthcare professionals.

While the company believes there is still a time and place for face-to-face meetings, its digital-first strategy tends to result in 70% of conversations taking place online. Marco Wulff, director of commercial strategy, and Mads Ødum, medical advisor at Abacus Medicine Pharma Services, met with Pharmaceutical Technology – virtually – to discuss their experiences.

Being able to address medical communities on multiple channels challenges the paradigm of the very rigid structure we are used to in medical affairs,” starts Ødum. “The digital environment is enabling a much more centralised approach to medical affairs, meaning we are able to cover a much larger territory with a more condensed set of resources in new and innovative ways. This then allows other benefits such as rapid knowledge exchange between geographies and across experts in different therapeutic areas.

Expanding horizons

In the endeavour to tackle the gaps in patient care, worldwide collaboration between the corporate pharma world and the medical community is essential. According to Wulff, this is one of the key benefits of the digital engagement model in medical affairs: “We can work with multiple stakeholders in multiple countries from one central point by using digital channels.

While direct communication platforms like Microsoft Teams are the most obvious example, the number of channels available for hosting medical discussions is long and growing. Online collaboration platforms are used to facilitate advisory board meetings where data can be presented to doctors. Online discussion forums can also be a great place for collaboration to flourish.

Webinars became a popular option during the pandemic, especially due to the ability to widen their reach through a recording which can then be split into smaller, more convenient fragments. Furthermore, the incorporation of in-webinar surveys became common practice for expanding the output of the event and collecting insights for future proceedings.

These webinar and group meeting systems are an evolving sector. We see new solutions popping up because demand is driven for more immersive, engaging models in the digital world,” says Wulff. “Suddenly more exchange is happening on social networking sites like LinkedIn and Twitter too.

Best of both worlds

Digital tools are certainly expanding the horizon of these important conversations. In some scenarios, they may even be more productive due to more time spent in presentation mode compared to a physical gathering. Yet after two successful years spent engaging medical professionals across these platforms, Wulff and Ødum are aware they come with challenges too, not least the occasional faulty internet connection or technical hitch. 

Not all healthcare professionals are open to working with these new solutions,” explains Ødum. “You need to find the right customers for this or at least try to guide them to ensure they are on board. Most often it can be difficult to ensure you captured everybody’s attention. Participant management can also be a problem. When you are coordinating an online event, it can be challenging to find a suitable time for eight different doctors located around the world. It might also be a matter of chemistry sometimes.

In light of these challenges, Wulff says it’s important to remember that ‘digital first’ does not mean digital only. He adds: “As we now build out new programmes with our clients with less pandemic restrictions, we recommend a healthy mix of engagement so that any given relationship is based both in the physical as well as the digital world. It allows you to capture the benefits of both.

Abacus Medicine Pharma Services believes it is well-placed to deliver the integrated medical affairs model required in this digital-first society, connecting medical insights back into the larger commercialisation strategy of its clients’ assets. Service providers in general have shown great aptitude for building large networks with more reach and impact. These networks can be valuable to small and medium-sized drug developers as well as large pharmaceutical organisations as they navigate a challenging commercialisation landscape hand-in-hand with market experts.