Beyond COVID-19: Life sciences reimagined

This is condensed from a report compiled by Reuters and sponsored by EY. Principal authors: Susan Garfield, US Consulting Principal and Life Sciences Sector Commercial Leader, EY and Blair Gottscho, Managing Director, Reuters Events Pharma.

As our survey of more than 550 senior life sciences leaders in the US makes clear, the pandemic has forced the life sciences industry to adapt almost overnight to a new way of working. Commercial and Medical Affairs teams have had to fundamentally rethink not only how they engage with HCPs and patients, but also how to maintain momentum for products being launched at a time of decreased access.

Patient engagement teams find themselves rushing to serve unmet patient needs remotely. R&D folk, meanwhile, are trying to work out what the pandemic and post-pandemic impacts will be on trials.

It is clear that a range of technologies have, or soon will, become a central part of the adjustment to these new realities. Life sciences businesses will need to adapt to the rapid adoption of telemedicine and near-home care. Their commercial approach will become more digitally weighted in a future where face time with doctors will be far more limited. They will also need to harness ways both to engage digitally and to adapt to the accelerated adoption of technologies such as wearables.

While almost every pharma business was already somewhere on this innovation and transformation journey, the imperative to adapt is now urgent. The challenge is to exploit these new circumstances to capture the considerable opportunities to help HCPs drive better outcomes and save them time and stress in the process; to engage with them more meaningfully and effectively; and to build on any lessons in clinical innovation arising from the race to develop vaccines forCOVID-19.

This process of adaptation has already begun. Life sciences companies are increasing investments en-masse into digital customer engagement (84% are increasing investments here) and in the technology to support this, such as data and analytics capabilities (79% are investing more). Well over half (58%) are also investing more in patient engagement. Many of the technology trends that were coming are moving, or already have moved, from early pilot stage or tactical applications to become central to the strategic plans for many.



Commercial operations have experienced significant uncertainty, which is anticipated to impact operations for the next year. Most respondents (64.9%) think there will be permanent downsizing in salesforce headcounts, although most don’t expect big cuts in the near term. Just 3% think their salesforce faces a significant downsizing of 25% or more in the next year. The current unpredictable environment has negatively impacted revenues across regions (at varying degrees).

At the same time, many sector players are contemplating strategic investments, while some simply do not have the funding to invest at pre-pandemic levels and others have seen encouraging growth.

Despite short-term fiscal limitations for some, there is clearly ample appetite for emerging digital technologies, which quickly became central to strategic operations for many entities after the COVID-19crisis began. “The worldwide pandemic lit the afterburners,” said Karan Arora, Chief Commercial Digital Officer, AstraZeneca. “In the past, technology was a tactic for driving efficiency and automation in health care. Today, it must be part of C-level strategies that reimagine how we work and how we interact with patients and providers for the best possible outcomes.”


Companies that allocate funding to digital technologies and staff to adapt to new ways of working will be best positioned to navigate the near-term uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic while also futureproofing the business to help guard against future disruption. This is certainly in the process of happening for most. The survey showed that 85% of respondents expected digital engagement investments to grow and 80%anticipated more spending on the technology and data analytics capabilities that would support remote capabilities.

For example, as noted by Sheila Frame, Vice President of Marketing, Market Access & Patient Services with Sandoz, “the sharp decline in engagement via medical congresses and field force visits affords pharma the opportunity to rethink its approach to geography.”


The road ahead

In the long term, companies must begin to reimagine commercial models, as investment in digital tech for both internal and external customer engagement will be a top priority across functions. This includes the widespread adoption of digital platforms to support telemedicine.

However, it is not yet clear how widely HCPs will employ telemedicine after the pandemic in the US compared to Europe, says AstraZeneca’s Arora.

“Outside the US that trend will continue because the economics are in place as centralized payer systems are reimbursing for it, so it will become part of the permanent care paradigm.”

It is not just a question of whether and how telemedicine will be reimbursed long term in the US, adds Arora. “Providers have invested in bricks and mortar to get economies of scale, so they want patients to come in.”

The continued embrace of telemedicine is likely to be more common in certain areas such as chronic diseases or oncology, however, he adds.

“It is not just a question of whether and how telemedicine will be reimbursed long term in the US. Providers have invested in bricks and mortar to get economies of scale, so they want patients to come in.” Karan Arora  -Chief Commercial Digital Officer- AstraZeneca



The sales model is being redefined.

The conventional field force model, already under pressure, has suddenly also been rendered unfit for purpose. “It is clear that the selling model and the rep’s role have fundamentally changed,” says Chetak Buaria, Global Head of Customer Engagement & Channel Evolution, Biopharma Global, Merck. “In the field force era, a face-to-face rep visit may have been the organization’s only touchpoint with a customer,” he says. “Now you might connect with that customer through alternative digital means and other touch points. How do you read all those into your call and structure, that conversation to adapt to this multichannel world?”

In a multichannel world where HCPs engage in various other ways, pharma needs to work out how the rep best fits in, says Buaria. “That fundamentally raises the bar for the rep. From the HCP’s point of view, how do you add value to my practice through this conversation?”

The other factor pharma needs to think about is who else is now customer-facing in addition to the rep and what training and resources they may need. Marketeers who are sending out emails, or conducting webinars are directly engaging in new ways with customers, for example, or IT colleagues may be helping customers get onto webinars.

“In the field force era, a face-to-face rep visit may have been the organization’s only touchpoint with a customer. Now you might connect with that customer through alternative digital means and other touch points.” Chetak Buaria-Global Head of Customer Engagement & Channel Evolution Biopharma Global-Merck


The commercial field force: rationalized or repurposed?

New investments, approaches and skills are being implemented and adopted. Sales and marketing folks are adapting what they do to make the most of the uptake of new channels. 51% of respondents agree or strongly agree that reps are making a smooth transition to remote engagement, while 72% say they are skilling rep teams up to be able to engage remotely.

The size and disposition of sales teams is under review and smaller field forces look likely, although in the short term the reductions may not amount to the reckoning some may have predicted.

Only 27% of respondents expect a decrease in sales personnel this year, without much focus on repurposing. In the medium term (12 to 24 months), respondents expect a decrease in salesforce headcount (35%). A bigger change is likely in the longer term, however, since 63% of respondents say that salesforce headcount will ultimately decrease as a result of the pandemic.

It is clear that many organizations are taking their time, rather than rushing through dramatic rationalizations, and they will also be considering evolving sales reps into new roles, divided roughly equally into marketing or sales operations or patient support, among those who are planning to repurpose salesforce teams.

The road ahead

The commercial function will need to adopt new technical, content and internal capabilities suited to the new digital first environment, entailing far-reaching reorganizations. Competitive advantage in commercial has moved from being about the scale and resources of the field force under the old model, to the mastery of digital technology. This will define success in future, says Arora: “This can drive massive economies and sustainable competitive efficiencies.”

The most effective participants in the new commercial environment will be those who use technology to provide the richest customer experience and provide HCPs with the best content. The ultimate destination for pharma businesses is highly responsive,

highly flexible engagement platforms. These will serve HCPs the content they need, when they need it, in the format and medium they want it. They will be mobile-first,

sometimes incorporating elements of augmented reality.


The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a paradigm shift of epic proportions, but as this survey shows, agile organizations and stakeholders have already begun to prepare for the road ahead – even if the destination isn’t quite clear yet.

In the short term, savvy companies are evaluating their capabilities – from workforce to process, technology and data – and making significant investments now with an eye toward salesforce transformation and commercial model evolution.

The road ahead is all about finding new ways of working through upskilling people and enabling infrastructure optionality, because the digital-driven biopharma organization of the future will meet patients and customers wherever they are. And as the industry forges new go-to-market strategies with all of these objectives in mind, one thing is abundantly clear – adaptability will be key.

Significant investment is already in train over the next two years across the major functions. Investment among the majority life sciences businesses is especially focused on digital engagement and the data and analytics capabilities that supports an enables it.

Patient Advocacy Experts

The full report can be accessed here.

Patient Advocacy Experts from PTC Therapeutics, Terumo BCT and Foundation Medicine


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