Article: Driving Rapid Innovation – The New World of Virtual Health Triggered by Pandemic Challenges - July 2020

christine franklin

Christine Franklin, Executive Director


The New World of Virtual Health Triggered by COVID-19

Few aspects of healthcare have been disrupted during the past several months as much as the physician experience. In addition to the interruption of sales rep access, physician offices closed their office doors at the peak of the pandemic-shutdown. This left pharmaceutical marketers and their partners looking for options to ensure physicians were getting adequate information and that the patient education stream was not disrupted. At the same time, we were hearing from patient advocates about the increasing need for reliable health content to be delivered to concerned chronic condition suffers.

What followed was an impressive all-hands-on-deck response from digital innovators across the digital health marketing industry, especially those who had already led the charge in non-personal promotion and in-office patient education.  The launch of true “virtual waiting rooms” allowed physicians to offer patients a cutting edge digital experience to replace the blank screen virtual waiting room of early days telehealth. Leaders like Outcome Health and PatientPoint each announced virtual waiting room options as they focused on meeting the challenge of ensuring patient education continued regardless of the environment.

The DHC Group has spent the past few weeks digging into the topic of the impact of the new virtual health landscape. We have held thought leader roundtables, surveyed physicians on the SERMO network, and interviewed pharma marketers. Additionally, several of our member partners have conducted research and written whitepapers which we have provided in the additional research section below. We offer the following key findings, largely informed by a roundtable held by Mark Bard (DHC Co-Founder) with participants including a senior pharma marketer who spoke anonymously, Linda Ruschau (Chief Client Officer, PatientPoint), Nandini Ramani (COO, Outcome Health), and Brendon Thomas (Director of Innovation, Intouch Group):

1. The Adoption of Virtual Health Represents A Significant Opportunity For Better, More Cohesive Communication Between Patients, Physicians, and Pharma

Our panel of experts agreed that one of the most exciting aspects is the ability to provide more tailored communication to patients, and by extension, their care providers. In this unique landscape, the population, en masse, became digitally savvy,  and more open to digital communication of all types.  On the healthcare front, this meant that marketers and their partners have been presented with an opportunity to create more sophisticated, fluid and effective communication. Brendon Thomas of Intouch Group explained “the integration and sharing of data in a more effective manner across healthcare, not just between HCPs and patients but pharmacists, even reps, med info, medical affairs – the whole ecosystem – can be more connected now than ever before because we’re being driven into digital world.”

The long- term opportunity here is key, as explained by a marketer from a leading pharma company “What we’re seeing and what we’re doing is reexamining our omnichannel approach.”  The impact of this landscape shift has marketers imagining new paradigms for the patient/provider experience. Linda Ruschau of PatientPoint described this as “it’s really streamlining and aligning and seeing that virtual health or telehealth is an extension of that individual provider’s experience and connection with the individual patient.”  While the technology and platforms have evolved considerably in the last several months, the long term reality has yet to be fully formed.

Nandini Ramini cast this vision “You have symptom checkers where people enter things in. You have informational content. Now with less rep access for pharma and others, I think it’s going to be crucial, how do you get the information not just to patients but also to doctors? That connective tissue between a physical visit and a virtual visit needs to be built in order for all of this information to be transferred.”  Others agree, “Think about if you’re in a virtual waiting room and you get a doctor discussion guide that helps you talk to the HCP more effectively and when that HCP writes their prescription right there, they can transfer you over directly to a patient support program and you’re not sitting there trying to connect three different things. The brand voice is going to be the thing that can be trusted right now and I think we should be pushing the opportunity to communicate and connect people,” shared Brendon.

2. Experts Agree, The Role of Virtual Health Fits As An Addition To, Not Replacement For, In Office Care

With patient health outcomes as the key priority, the expert panel agreed that the role of virtual health is not a replacement but instead a supplement to in person patient – physician interactions. The idea of a completely customized patient experience from the comforts of one’s couch is enticing, but when the goal is the best possible health outcome, it’s a balancing act. As Nandini Ramani explains “You need a community of people and hospitals and actual physical visits give you that [outcome]. It’s partly about content that’s relevant to you and your current diagnosis but it’s also about content and building communities where people can share their experiences and give you information that’s authentic, validated, and the like.

Mark Bard, DHC co-founder, asked the panel to predict the steady stake virtual health a year from now, suggesting options such as settling at 25%, 30%, 35% etc.  The panel agreed that 25% – 30% was indeed a likely prediction, with a senior marketer adding “It’s going to be dependent on intent. Is the intent of the visit more to – is the diagnosis? In that regard, we have to support that patient and that testing and the provider from a virtual care modality perspective. We’re going to see a tremendous downturn at least from projecting from our end on even our sales reps being able to get into their offices. That’s just the nature of the game I think at this point and shifting that way is going to be really exciting part.”  All parties agree that nothing is more important to make sure patients get the best degree of treatment. It’s also important to remember that physician practices and healthcare systems are businesses. Their business model is in providing health, and many physicians agree that they need patients in the office to keep in business.

And a large factor in where virtual health fits in the landscape takes us back to the first point – it will depend on the ecosystem that comes with it. Nandini clarified “We need to build that entire ecosystem where you can transfer records from anywhere and how do you do a consult where you stick your tongue out and look? I see startups coming with little tools. It’s small little things like that. Innovation, it’s a multi-year – it’s a marathon, not a sprint. I don’t anticipate by next year we’ll have seamless integration of all systems.” With all that in mind, we take a look at the third key factor raised by experts.

3. The Uncertainty Around The Role of The Payer and Financial Burden Must Be Factored In

Virtual health has been in the news recently, with a focus on the need for clarity around the long-term coverage of “telehealth”.  During the COVID shutdown, insurance companies offered temporary expansions in order to allow for virtual health interactions to replace in office visits with comparable coverage.  But these temporary allowances will need to become permanent in order for the vision cast here to be a reality.  The panel discussed, with one pharma marketer noting “from a payer perspective – that’s where our barriers start to exist. Where we need to see more growth is in the regulation changes, the access for our patients so that we can create a more cohesive environment for providers to provide virtual health and for us to educate patients.”

Now may be an opportunity for our industry to advocate for the prioritization of this new suite of services, based on the collective belief that it will result in better patient health outcomes.  Brendon Thomas shared “the problem that we’re suffering now is the financial burden, as well as the burden on health systems to upgrade their systems and facilitate the sharing [of data]. I think that’s a real opportunity for third parties and pharma to get involved to facilitate that sharing more effectively.” Another panelist agreed “it’s going to be a balancing act and pharma is going to be very heavily involved. We’re seeing big tech start to get involved as well and then influencing regulations.”

Linda Ruschau explained that especially in the case of chronic conditions, the cost – benefit analysis of offering virtual health will be a win for all parties: “the average diabetes patient costs the healthcare system $20,000 to $25,000 a year. Is it worth giving them a product that is specifically tailored for them to be able to communicate with their physician in whatever way, whether it’s a Zoom, face to face, or sending their vitals and other testing mechanisms? There’s a lot of innovation coming that is going to be really exciting at driving better health outcomes.”

Linda’s sentiment over the excitement of driving better health outcomes demonstrates why virtual health is so important for the healthcare industry to get right. When asked more about it, she said “Patient outcomes will only get better if we provide those educational and diagnostic tools to both the providers and the patients to have that same level of experience. That’s where I see our obligation and incredible opportunity as an industry to really help bring that to live and elevate the entire experience.”  We look forward to partnering with the experts mentioned here and all our membership to make that a reality.


Subscribe to our Mailing List

Receive more DHC content like this directly in your inbox. We will respect your privacy and never sell your information. View our Privacy Policy.

* indicates required