Even if well underway before the pandemic, Covid-19 has given businesses an unprecedented opportunity to accelerate and implement technology-fueled changes to the way they operate and engage. For pharmaceutical companies, the pandemic forced many to rethink and readjust supply chains, clinical trials, manufacturing process and end-customer reach. If pharmaceutical companies had relied on the traditional face-to-face sales force and physicians’ interactions before the pandemic, then Covid-19 made a 180⁰ change, reinforcing virtual communication approaches.

According to a GlobalData poll conducted with pharmaceutical industry professionals from 19 April to 18 May, 75% of the 456 total respondents saw virtual interaction remaining (either as a standalone option or a mix of in-person and virtual interactions) after the Covid-19 crisis recedes. Only 25% of the healthcare professionals (HCPs) believed that in-person interactions would go back to pre-pandemic levels, reiterating the change in physicians’ preferences, in turn indicating that pharma companies will need to seek new ways to create meaningful connections (Figure 1).

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From the very start of the pandemic, traditional in-person sales reps’ visits sharply declined due to social distancing and lockdown measures. Pharma companies had to adapt rapidly to this new world and train sales reps in the use of virtual tools to stay connected to physicians. With restrictions around in-person interactions and hospital visits continuing, the relationship between physicians and pharma sales reps will be altered further, creating a substantial demand for virtual and online meetings software and tools. The healthcare industry companies continuing to respond to the shift in physicians’ behaviour and recreate the in-person experience using virtual tools will be better positioned to deal with HCP access challenges not only during the pandemic but also once the pandemic recedes.

In another GlobalData poll, completed by HCPs between 19 April and 18 May, 30% of the 318 total respondents believed that video calls were the best tools for virtual interactions between sales reps and HCPs, followed by messaging (20%) and phone calls (16%). Video calls, the channel that provides face-to-face yet remote interactions, were seen as the best alternative to traditional in-person communications. While video calls cannot fully capture body language, they can still provide information about facial expressions, which, in the same way as conventional interaction methods, can give some non-verbal cues to help establish rapport (Figure 2).

New technologies and innovations present a number of opportunities for improving and transforming the pharmaceutical industry and meeting future healthcare needs. Ongoing digital transformation is forcing companies to change their operational models and adapt to the new business reality, with customers being one of the main drivers behind this shift. The longer social distancing restrictions continue, the more changes they are expected to bring to future interactions. For pharmaceutical sales, it means that the sales forces will need to move away from one-size-fits-all communication approaches and adapt to varying customer needs.

By triggering shifts in physicians’ behaviour, Covid-19 also will act as the catalyst redefining sales reps’ role. Sales forces provide an important connection between the pharmaceutical industry and healthcare providers by introducing their prospects to innovative therapies and industry trends, but due to digital transformation, the role of traditional sales reps may also significantly change. The industry will have a much greater need for tech-savvy people knowing how to build brands, accommodate customer needs and deliver messaging using hybrid methods and virtual tools.