29.11.2018 | Health Strategy

How HCPs’ changing behaviour is transforming pharmaceutical strategy

By Suzanna Gamwell

How HCPs' changing behaviour is transforming pharmaceutical strategy

The healthcare environment is becoming increasingly complex to navigate. On one hand, the industry is presented with number of exciting and disruptive factors such as emerging technologies and increasingly informed and empowered patients. On the other, developing constraints such as stretched payor budgets and increasingly stringent guidelines around marketing to healthcare professionals (HCPs) are forcing pharmaceutical companies to assess how they work with healthcare systems and communicate with HCPs.

In the midst of this, a revolution has slowly been taking place among HCP customers. For many, online collaboration with peers has become more than a day to day reality; it is a highly valued tool for navigating a changing landscape. And this prompts a number of considerations for marketing professionals working with pharmaceutical brands: how to track and respond to rapidly changing customer opinion; where best to focus pressurised resources; and how to connect with customers, in light of their changing expectations.

It is becoming increasingly clear that HCPs are eager to collaborate online with peers to create better outcomes for their patients, using public and closed physicians networks to ask and answer questions, discuss data and share decision making aids. In recent years, we’ve seen global movements birthed by physicians on their smartphones, from colorectal surgeons collaborating to share knowledge through to dermatologists partnering with patients to challenge Instagram.

And why not? For physicians working in increasingly pressurised environments, removing barriers to knowledge (geography; seniority; etc.) could make the difference between a right decision and a poor patient outcome. This is particularly true for those HCPs who trained and qualified in the age of social media, for whom online collaboration is second nature; but even those more long in the tooth have caught on to this in recent years – with a flurry of summer congresses, it has been interesting to see high profile specialists responding to and discussing data on Twitter.

So what does it mean for your brand as your customers use digital tools to adapt and respond to their environment? To return to that old adage from Peter Drucker about knowing your customers so well that your product sells itself, marketers and brand leads now have unprecedented visibility of the unprompted, organic views and opinions of prescribers – a view unhindered by response bias. This isn’t just useful for marketers: as pharmaceutical companies place more emphasis on the cross-functional ‘critical team’ around a product, colleagues from medical and regulatory through to market access and communications are beginning to see online conversations as a new and important route to customer intelligence. Want to know in real time how HCPs are responding to new data? Concerns about pricing? Questions about administration? It’s all there, and it presents you with an opportunity to understand what really matters to your customers, right now.

Perhaps this is as close as it gets to knowing what your customers really think, unfettered by a likert scale or an interviewer. And herein lies the opportunity; to build a strategy that responds to the voice of the customer. Plan to connect with your customers by understanding what matters to them, and why.

Responding to the voice of the customer can start early – even before launch. HCPs are uniquely positioned to recognise the gaps in a treatment landscape; they feel the pain of needing a better solution for patients. This is evident in the discussion of news regarding clinical developments, the sharing of data, or even the occasional outburst of frustration.

These conversations point to a felt need among your customers – something that they actively want for as they treat patients. Could these early online insights help to inform investment in product development? Could you align your messaging with HCPs in acknowledging the needs in your target therapy area, using language that resonates with HCPs and at the same time building a case for your drug candidate? We have seen a number of clients successfully use online HCP insights to inform market access and reimbursement conversations, or to validate hypothesis from other research; could online insights form part of your business case? Or could you assess the level of interest in a new development by tracking early HCP responses, as per a recent study of cardiologist conversations relating to SGLT2s for heart failure?

If you are working with an existing product, online conversation can elicit rich insights about brand perception, how patients are differentiating between your product and competitors, and even practical concerns that your customers might have around issues such as storage and administration. The nature of the online community may even provide the key to a product positioning or message that resonates across multiple audience segments: One change being ushered in by HCP use of social media is the disruption of traditional offline HCP networks and hierarchies, as we see HCPs open to collaborate online across role types or levels of experience in a way that is rare to see ‘in real life’. These dialogues can unearth unique perspectives and issues that are rarely expressed elsewhere.

Even at the end of a drug’s lifecycle, consider the role of both on and offline activities in building and maintaining customer loyalty. Have you developed offline advocates for your brand? How about complementing this by leveraging the networks of your online influencers, as your brand approaches loss of exclusivity? The digital space is also a great place to track how HCPs are responding to new entrants to the market in real time, which can be helpful when planning to retain market share.

Remember that online, HCPs discuss what really matters to them, rather than what you might consider to be the factors driving decision making, and this wealth of customer insight can help you to look beyond your product to understand the broader concerns of HCP customers. You might be surprised to discover how little your customers discuss your product, but how preoccupied they are by, for example, the mental health burden upon the patient that your product treats. A good strategy will listen to the needs of your customers, whether stated or implicit, and then respond to them – see Eli Lilly’s award winning Conversations In Motion Campaign for a great example of this.



These evolving behaviours place HCPs at the heart of the emerging digital narrative around their therapy areas, as arbiters of vast amounts of information relating to patient experience, manufacturer messaging, new data, media noise, and so on. Online HCPs themselves are becoming signposts between condition and cure – whilst grappling with the same environmental factors and developments as the rest of us. Pharmaceutical brand teams should look to develop strategies that recognise and respect this; strategies that plan to connect with customers by both listening, and responding, to their online voices.


This article was originally written for and published in the November 2018 edition of PMLiVE.

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Meet the Author

Suzanna Gamwell