IssueOpinionSep 21

Company-Doctor relationship: Has it withstood the pandemic storm ?

Marketing Communication teams had to pull up their socks as sales teams were refrained from meeting the HCPs due to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. Sangeeth G Kini, VP, Hemogenomics, gives an insight on how the medtech and pharma companies engaged the HCPs during lockdown by augmenting the digital outreach activities; and also analyses the criticality of sales function in the industry

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Since March 2020, the healthcare landscape has been on a rollercoaster ride due to the ever-evolving nature of the pandemic as well as the changing governmental guidelines. Lockdowns, containment zones, travel restrictions, essential services passes to commute, etc have become the new normal between the two waves that we have witnessed. The healthcare delivery segment be it hospitals, laboratories, imaging centres, pharmacy shops; as well as allied healthcare facilities–had to make drastic changes in their operations. The professionals associated with these institutions – hospital administrators, doctors, nurses, paramedics too had to adapt to this new normal balancing their safety with the interests of the patients.

While a lot had already been written about the newer ways of healthcare delivery system, the focus of my article is how the medical products industry such as pharma companies, diagnostics companies and other segments evolved to continue to engage with the doctors, hospital administrator and other stakeholders during and after the lockdown period, as well as to analyse the criticality of sales personnel for the medical companies.

The Lockdown

The lockdown declared on March 24, 2020, was abrupt. Many companies were caught unprepared. Work from home became a compulsion than a choice for many professionals. The immediate questions in the minds of corporate leaders were how long would it take to get back to normalcy and what can we do to engage with the Healthcare Providers (HCPs) during this lockdown period.

Traditionally, medical and healthcare companies are highly sales team-centric. The salespeople would meet the doctors and other stakeholders in hospitals and clinics and promote their products.

Over time, the sales person develops relationship with the Healthcare Providers (HCP) and the HCPs too find comfortable to deal with such sales professionals. Negotiations that took place across the table and deals were closed over fruitful face-to-face discussions. It was easier for both sides to understand each other better over a cup of Coffee. All these had come to an abrupt stop on 24th March 2020.

Relationship Dynamics in New Normal

Most companies were caught unawares, not sure how to stay connected with their core customer base. It was clear that we were heading towards a new normal where digital channels would gain prominence over traditional practices. The companies that were already active in the digital space had the advantage while others followed.  What we saw was a barrage of webinars! Every company conducted webinars and most companies managed to get a good number of doctors attending these seminars. For example, an international webinar conducted by Bio-rad Laboratories on Diabetes Testing and Glycated Hemoglobins was attended by about 700 Indian doctors that included diabetologists and pathologists.

Over the last year, all companies put together, thousands of webinars were conducted. This has led to digital fatigue. The attendance slowly started dropping down. Companies like Siemens Healthineers now organises small group meetings where doctors of specific territories or specialities are invited for webinars. The number of webinars conducted went up but the attendance per webinar dropped down in 2021.

Hemogenomics too augmented the digital outreach activities through social media platforms. More than product marketing, Hemogenomics took up various important causes such as plasma donation and cervical cancer screening to create awareness amongst the public.

In short, as the sales team were refrained from meeting the HCPs due to lockdown restrictions, the marketing team had to pull up their socks and conduct more marketing programmes. Of course, the sales teams did a lot of coordination with the HCPs over the telephone, email and Whatsapp.

Presently, companies such as Abbott and Siemens conduct quite a few digital media activities, such as mass emails, social media posts, e-brochures, microvideos, a virtual demo of products, even a live demo of medical equipment for a specific potential buyer. Physical conferences paved the way for virtual conferences and company-sponsored stalls evolved into virtual stalls/booths.

While the marketing teams of companies steered all these new activities, the sales team too had to acquire newer skills. For example, influencing a potential customer over a phone call to buy a product needed much more impactful communication skills than a face-toface meeting. Persuading a doctor over the phone or Whatsapp to attend a webinar organised by their company was a test of the persuasive skills of the sales team. Talking about Whatsapp, this medium became a primary medium to inform the doctors about all various activities of the company. Doctors too got used to receiving technical updates through Whatsapp from company personnel.

During the lockdown time, the salespeople of many companies made a ‘Must Call’ list of their customers whom they had to call over the phone every day and report back to the company.

Post Second Wave

The physical meetings slowly made a return, but many hospitals have put strict restrictions on sales personnel and medical rep visits to their premises. The meetings are allowed with prior appointments only in most hospitals. By now, the HCP community too have got used to online interaction with company personnel. Most pre-sales activities such as sharing product details, presentations, technical updates etc take place through the digital route. At times, even negotiation meetings happen over a VC.

In certain cases, the local salesperson visits the doctor and takes senior colleagues on a video conference on his laptop for a discussion with the doctor or hospital authorities. So, for the HCP, it acts like a hybrid meeting: both face-to-face with the company’s local representative and online with other company personnel. Companies find it more convenient that while the local salesperson reaches the client’s office for a physical meeting, other team members be available for an online discussion. In the pre-covid time, multiple company personnel had to travel to far off city for an important client meeting, which has greatly become an old way of doing things.

Even the service engineers these days provide telephonic guidance to clients for a piece of equipment that needs repair. Earlier a service engineer or a technical person needed to visit a client site to attend to a trouble-shooting call.

Now, the first attempt to troubleshoot is through remote assistance. Only if that fails to yield desired results, the engineer would travel to the client location. Till recently, many hospitals demanded a covid negative test report (Antigen/RT PCR) to allow company personnel to enter the hospital. There was reluctance from a company employee to subject himself/herself to frequent testing as a pre-requisite to visit a hospital.

Well, not all HCPs were equally savvy with or keen to go online to discuss with company representatives. While doctors and administrators working at corporate hospitals and Referral labs were fine to connect over an online meeting with company people, HCPs from Tier II or III towns were not very keen on that. They were open to meet the salespersons and discuss their products than get online.

Pharma and Surgical Sales

For pharma companies, the field force is their greatest strength. In fact, during the difficult times, these Medical Reps stood by the doctors to co-ordinate and arrange various medicines, O2 cylinders, hospital beds etc. A few pharma companies saw it as an opportunity to build relations with the HCPs by roviding them PPE kits, sanitisers and other personal safety products.

The surgical market was badly hit by covid, as the elective surgeries were postponed. The number of surgeries performed during the lockdown period and the peak of covid infections were only about 10-15 per cent of the normal. Many surgeons were even engaged in covid care as it was the need of the hour. Today the number of surgeries conducted is at almost 75 per cent of the earlier levels. The salespeople are welcomed back by the HCPs, as they play a vital role in surgical and invasive care by closely working along with the surgeons by providing demos, clinical inputs, query handling etc.

How Doctors Perceived

I was curious to know how the doctors perceived the change in this approach by the companies from an offline to an online mode of engagement. I reached out to a few eminent doctors and hospital administrators to hear from them. All of them had one thing in common, that they value the comfort associated with a face-to-face meeting with the company professionals. Most newer technology up-gradation or adoption of a new product in their practice required a two-way freeflowing communication between the doctor and the company person. A webinar, an email or a social media post from the company could never offer the comfort of a free-wheeling discussion between the doctor and the company person and the trust and relationships that would develop as a result of such interactions.

While the number of emails sent by various companies has exponentially increased, the attention span to read an email has diminished to only those products that are technologically advanced, or new or have something to do with covid care. Doctors felt that they continued to prescribe the drugs and brands that were well registered in their minds, while not trying out a new drug or brand due to perceived gaps in the information flow. While doctors found quite a few webinars organised by the companies very informative, they had to attend a few other webinars only to oblige to the requests of the company sales personnel.

During the peak of the pandemic, most upgrades and the introduction of newer products and technologies (for noncovid purposes) had been put on hold due to the shift in focus towards covid care. The focus is now back to other patient categories and therefore a direct and closer interaction with company personnel to understand their product offerings has resumed.

Conclusion

Online medium of communication could reach more HCPs faster, easier, cheaper and of course, safer! Some of the non-core business activities could move from offline to online medium too.However, the importance of a good sales team and the value addition that they would bring to the healthcare delivery ecosystem was strongly felt during the lockdown. As they say, the value of an eye is felt when one loses it!

I thankfully acknowledge the inputs from:
Dr Debasish Gupta, HoD Transfusion Medicine, Shree Chitra Institute of Medical Sciences, Thiruvananthapuram; Dr Gayatri Deshpande, Sr Consultant, Obstetrics & Gyn, Nanavati Super Speciality Hospital, Mumbai;Dr Prashant Deshmukh, COO, CIMS Hospital, Ahmedabad; Abhinav Thakur, Managing Director, Accurex Biomedicals; Bimal B K, Divisional Manager, Bio-rad India; Bijesh KV, Head – Marketing, Abbott Diagnostics India Joy Lawrence, Head – Marketing, Siemens Healthineers India; OT Rajesh, Zonal Manager – South, Maxer Endoscopy; Debajyothi Debnath, Regional Manager – North East, Lupin Pharma. (Views expressed by the author are personal)

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