The Covid-19 pandemic heavily restricted the ability of sales reps to enter doctor’s offices and hospitals, changing the world of pharmaceutical sales dramatically. In the three years since the pandemic first emerged, many pharma companies have changed their traditional sales tactics to cater to a broader range of physicians, hospitals, and patients. 

The pharma sales field is now exploring whether artificial intelligence (AI) can play a more significant role in connecting patients and getting HCPs to serve them better. Reps may benefit from AI-powered tools, like a CRM robot, that can help answer complex questions and deliver essential information to HCPs.

Now, however, attention turns to whether the pharma field will attempt to reverse its Covid-led operations, continue their acceleration, or modify its trajectory once more. 

Covid-19’s impact on pharma sales

In 2022, pharma producers made approximately $100 billion in revenue from vaccines and treatments for Covid-19. The revenue picture analysts and companies have painted for 2023 is very different, however, with sales expected to drop by almost two-thirds, Reuters states.

Arguably, as a result of Covid-19, the pharma sales field became aware of previously unknown opportunities. Remote meetings transformed the face of pharma selling. “This fundamentally changed the nature of healthcare professional-rep relationships, placing virtual engagement as a natural complement to in-person meetings,” Florian Schnappauf, VP of Enterprise Commercial Strategy at Veeva Europe, told Pharmaceutical Technology Focus

Messaging through chat and text functions grew in popularity. Using these newer channels and the expanded use of video and email also emphasised the benefit of “pull” models where healthcare providers (HCPs) reach out directly for information alongside traditional “push” tactics. Pharma sales reps’ meetings subsequently averaged four to five times longer than in-person meetings, as per Veeva.

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Evolving needs across the value chain

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, physician, hospital and patients’ needs have changed.

“The pandemic amplified the need for digital engagement and highlighted the benefits for HCPs and patients,” says Schnappauf.

Today, patients can meet with doctors remotely when it works best for them, and HCPs can meet with industry or access information across their preferred channels. With access to information more widespread, patients also expect HCPs to be up to date on innovations and the latest treatment standards.

“Three levels of rep engagement are emerging, with a significant impact on access, brand perception, and engagement,” Schnappauf says. Pharma reps are back in-person, setting the foundation to build HCP relationships. Reps are using HCPs’ preferred channels at the next level to establish in-depth, trusted touchpoints. “But the very best reps build deep in-person and digital connections that ensure they are sought after and easy to reach, even when they’re not physically present,” Schnappauf adds.

In a survey conducted with pharmaceutical industry professionals from 2Q 2021, 75% of 456 respondents expected virtual interaction to remain, either as a standalone option or a mix of in-person and virtual interactions, after the Covid-19 crisis receded. A quarter of respondents expected in-person interactions to go back to pre-pandemic levels.

GlobalData is the parent company of Pharmaceutical Technology Focus.

Involving artificial intelligence (AI)

AI can equip field teams with deeper insights into their customers and key stakeholders in their broader ecosystem. “If implemented responsibly and effectively, it can help representatives lead more targeted conversations so that HCPs receive more precise information tailored to the patients they treat,” Schnappauf states.

A 2021 research study exploring how pharma companies use AI found that while small companies focus on using the technology to change their research and development (R&D) focus and business processes, large companies use AI to alter their sales, marketing and manufacturing processes. However, the researchers confirmed: “There is a lack of successful AI integrations in the pharmaceutical industry”. Furthermore, some of those solutions that are successful are relatively unknown.

“To keep up with the acceleration of complex and rare disease therapies, HCPs need relevant, timely information like never before to inform patients quickly on needed new treatments,” says Schnappauf. “Field teams need real-time intelligence on scientific activity to engage key HCPs and reach them with timely rare disease education to spot trends in patients earlier,” Schnappauf details.

Technology providers are building on AI developments to quickly bring responsive data to healthcare teams and patients. On 13 July , advanced AI solutions provider, Sorcero announced the release of its generative AI platform to help accelerate medical affairs (MA) teams’ ability to improve patient outcomes. At the time, Dipanwita Das, CEO and co-founder of Sorcero, said, “Patients can’t wait for better care.”

Beyond the pandemic

In the future pharma sales can utilise AI, data, digital channels and content to engage practitioners and patients. “Coming into play for the new era of field teams is how they make the most of all the technological advances in their expanded toolkit,” says Schnappauf.

A 2022 research study found that growing healthcare services that incorporate digital technologies help to maintain social distancing and impartiality. However, it also found that while the rapid rise of advertising for pharma products does enable more cost-effective options to become available, they also hide budgetary limits. 

“AI and prompt-based, natural-language processing capabilities have the potential to become some of the most powerful tools field teams can use to engage HCPs and bring even more targeted therapies to the right patients,” Schnappauf says.

Field teams could ask these technologies to write a complaint email or explain a doctor’s prescription patterns and patient populations, for example, helping to communicate the most relevant information. “The true value lies in reps leveraging generative AI technology in a CRM bot using data private to their company so they can answer unique business questions without sacrificing accuracy or compliance,” adds Schnappauf.

This content was updated on 25 January 2024