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Pharmaceutical Marketers’ Guide to Managing through the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic

The first case of Coronavirus (COVID-19) was reported in Wuhan, China in 2019. This highly contagious and easily transmitted respiratory illness is now a world-wide pandemic and a U.S. State of Emergency.

The size, scale and contagion rates of the COVID-19 pandemic are unprecedented new terrain for our healthcare systems and governments to properly manage. What the infected counts appear to be today are likely far worse in reality as it is spreading exponentially, estimated to be doubling every few days. Things become even more hazy due to the fact that COVID-19 can remain dormant for up to two weeks before any symptoms are apparent, that is if they even become apparent, as every human carrier reacts differently.

In a highly divided and politicized world, this virus, in a strange way, may bring us back to our common humanity by giving us a life-or-death mission on which to focus. The world is rallying behind Pharma, the lab companies, scientists, infectious disease doctors and researchers who are all working around the clock to find a preventative vaccine, distribute economical testing, and even potentially find a treatment or cure if possible. We are all rooting for you in these efforts, and applaud the cooperation and selflessness being demonstrated.

The practicing healthcare practitioners on the frontline that are selflessly putting themselves in harm’s way to treat others are true heroes during this crisis.

As pharmaceutical marketers, this crisis introduces significant unique challenges. The main engine of pharmaceutical sales & promotion, the face-to-face, on-the-ground pharmaceutical detail representatives are, and will continue to be, stuck at home for an indefinite period of time. You are probably reading this article while working from home, as much of the nation is doing right now, with no clear idea of when we may get back to normalcy. These are unusual times. In case you think I’m overreacting, let’s take stock of where are we right now on an industry-wide basis. As of this writing:

Pfizer’s new COVID-19 task force has told its US customer facing employees (sales reps) to work from home. A Pfizer spokesperson told CNBC that the company made the decision to help limit the spread of the virus: “All Pfizer customer facing colleagues in the U.S and Puerto Rico will use virtual customer tools to maintain important contact with health care providers and other customers… We will continue to re-assess this decision and continue regular communications with our customers.”

An offsite Biogen leadership meeting at the Marriott Long Wharf Hotel in Boston was an epicenter of COVID-19 contagion in Massachusetts. With 175 attendees, including representatives from other companies such as Eli Lilly, CNN reports that 70 of the 92 Massachusetts cases can be linked back to this epicenter. This group rapidly dispersed after the conference by plane, train and automobile to many areas of the country. More of those who attended, and those who subsequently came into contact with those who attended, are likely to test positive in the days and weeks ahead.

Starting with restricted or limited travel policies going into effect last month, more pharma companies have moved toward encouraging employees who can work from home to do so. Employees, from Biogen, Eli Lilly, Pfizer, Novartis, BMS, and AstraZeneca, to name a few, are either being mandated or encouraged to work from home. For the health of those who are still in the building, many companies are restricting access to any external non-employee, non-essential visitors to their campuses.

Most advertising agencies that support these clients have followed suit. By nature, agencies are highly collaborative, constantly meeting both internally and externally, and are full of staff who regularly travel and live and work in major metro areas. Agencies are likely to face a higher rate of COVID-19 infections.

As with their home office staff, many pharma companies are now requiring their sales reps “stay home” and find other means to sell (easier said than done). For those companies who have yet to pull in their field-based sales reps, a huge safety risk in and of itself, it is likely they will in short order.

From a practical standpoint, reps don’t really have a choice regardless of their companies’ policies because hospitals and physician offices are not going to allow them into the building due to “social distancing” and crisis-initiated requirements, only offering access to staff and screened patients. Our HCPs are already among the most vulnerable population due to their continued exposure to patients – they don’t want or need any non-essential bodies in their buildings at this critical time.

On the medical society/association conference front, the conferences that were supposed to occur within the next three months are one-by-one being rapidly cancelled, postponed, or moved to a virtual learning setting. That big booth presence, satellite symposium, poster session and customer dinner you were planning for are off the table now too.

Check your specific society/association website to view the status of your event, but here are a few resources that are monitoring what’s been effective (though it’s moving so fast, no one can keep up):

1. STAT’s guide to health care conferences disrupted by the coronavirus crisis
2. COVID-19: What’s Cancelled, What Isn’t

So what is a pharma marketer to do?

With the salesforce effectively benched, and the Spring conference calendar falling apart, and potentially the fall conferences being impacted as well, what is a pharma marketer to do?

Brands still have growth and market share gain goals and brand managers still have KPIs to meet, but the field salesforce just stalled and realistically, we don’t know when it’s coming back.

This is a great time to open up your Non-Personal Promotion (NPP) handbook and execute some critical plays. Budgets should and will shift in a big way toward NPP. With social distancing, quarantines, and lockdowns, screen time on both phones and computers is going to skyrocket for consumers as well as HCPs.

At a time like this, the device in our pocket, and any device with a screen, become our link to the outside world. As such, digital tactics, for both patients and HCPs, are more relevant than ever. With increased screen time, these tactics are more scalable than they were even last month. Those NPP digital tactics that can target list-matched HCPs and deliver significant high prescriber reach at scale, while also providing engagement metrics back to the marketer, are an ideal substitution for a benched, at-home salesforce. Providing user-level engagement data to your remote salesforce through their CRM can also augment the sidelined salesforce’s ability to be as effective as possible with their own digital tools, be it email, video conferencing or other offerings, in a timely manner. Providing relevant and helpful digital engagements is the best thing you can do for your valuable HCP customers right now.

On the DTC side, the messaging should be enhanced as well. Pharma is doing great things right now on the world-wide stage – we are acting decisively, collaborating and focusing on solutions, vaccines, treatments and cures. This moment in the spotlight is a great way to tastefully remind people of your heroic efforts and contributions and regain some lost consumer trust and confidence in our industry. Remember, the whole world is rooting for you.

Ironically, another thing that comes out of China and perfectly summarizes this moment in time is the Chinese proverb, or some say curse, “may you live in interesting times…”. Indeed we do.

Stay Healthy!

R.J. Lewis
Founder & CEO
eHealthcare Solutions
Twitter: @rlewis

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