Published 16 May 2022

MYTH-BUSTING: PHARMA VERSUS INDEPENDENT PLATFORMS

Of all the research studies conducted by EPG Health on the topic of pharma-HCP engagement, ‘The Gaps Between HCP Demand and Pharma Supply’ provoked the most discussion and debate. Within just a few days in January 2022, over 50 people took to LinkedIn seeking to either criticise, question, or explain pharma decisions to invest more in their own websites than independent channels. This article seeks to explore the key arguments.

Quote about EPG Health's report: The Gaps Between HCP Demand and Pharma Supply

At a point when the COVID pandemic had created a watershed moment for virtual HCP engagement, and most pharma had already adapted their digital channel strategy and investment decisions, our study found that 24% of pharma executives expected a significant budget rise for their own websites in 2022, versus just 3% for increased investment in independent websites.

The uncomfortable truths were that pharma’s strategic investment was at odds with HCP demand (82% of HCPs rated independent medical websites highly, compared to 40% for pharma sites) and therefore pharma’s own declaration (by 53% of those surveyed) that customer experience (CX) was a top strategic priority for 2022.

 

 

CRITICISM FOR PHARMA WEBSITE INVESTMENT

“Every day I speak to a marketing/medical lead, biting my tongue as they praise their shiny new brand portal, which cost X million dollars to build and will solve all of their communication problems. Surprise surprise… no one will visit it and it will be in the bin by next year.”

“These resources [pharma websites] are drained from other areas suffering from chronic under-investment.”

“So the fact that we in pharma think that setting up closed, company specific sites (such as branded portals) as our intelligent answer to post-pandemic communications to me seems, at best, misguided… at worst, completely arrogant. Doctors are already voting with their feet, and are migrating towards independent portals just as you already do in your own life.”

“Welcome to 2022: neither HCPs nor Patients care about them…they want independent information and cross-pharma companies initiatives!”

“The sooner the pharma industry wakes up to how people actually behave, rather than how it would like them to behave, the better the outcomes for all.”

It might be assumed by readers that, as the publisher of an independent website, EPG Health is in full agreement with these statements. In fact, that is not entirely the case. We believe there are distinct purposes and benefits for pharma AND independent websites and that the real conundrum is around getting the balance right. Nevertheless, there were many well-articulated arguments put forward for why pharma could not or should not invest in independent websites – and these we will respectfully refute!

 

 

CREDIBILITY AND COMPLIANCE ISSUES

“If Pharma invested heavily in independent platforms, they would no longer be independent.”

“It’s not the marketers being ‘behind the times’ in many cases but the Approvers who don’t understand and therefore give any new innovation the big ‘no’.”

“It is often the result of [pharma’s] antiquated approval processes and compliance interpretations that lead to the blockades on more innovative approaches. Shame indeed as the will and appreciation is there.”

“What I’d ask is to what extent do your feel statutory compliance requirements, alongside those set out by self-regulation codes of practice, contribute to some of these issues?”

TV channels, magazines, newspapers, social media sites, comparison sites, and indeed almost any platform relying on advertising or sponsorship, have managed to retain a degree of independence & credibility by separating editorial and commercial internally. Yes, their regulatory landscapes may differ, but it is absolutely also possible within healthcare.

As the publisher of ‘an independent website’ (Medthority – www.medthority.com ), we provide utility to paying partners without compromising independence and usefulness for the HCP audience. The fact that we work with dozens of leading pharma companies is a testament to this. And while the report clearly shows that pharma prioritisation of owned channels is set to continue, we are increasingly seeing medical teams taking the lead in support of more innovative, independent programmes.

We go to considerable lengths to protect our integrity, and that of the funding pharma client, often way beyond that which our clients might prefer. We can and do say ‘no’ to any attempt to influence balance or legitimacy. The more balanced and independent the content, the easier compliance is. It is when you only focus on your treatment and clinical trials that compliance becomes difficult and credibility is compromised.

 

 

INDEPENDENT ACTIVITIES BENEFIT COMPETITORS

“I am struggling with how to really envision a similar shift to portals
– avoiding the risk of simply feeding the biggest competitor.”

In general, if your brand has any position in the market, more discussion of its uses can only be a benefit, especially when it is not coming from you. Helping HCPs to understand the individual merits of multiple treatment approaches will not feed a competitor’s already well-known brand, but instead, open the topic to other voices and narratives. When done right, it gives a pharma company a unique position with their audience.

HCPs don’t simply need branded material saying, ‘please use our drug’, they need credible, independent discussions and comparisons of the various treatment options and patient scenarios. With more healthcare discussions centering on shared decision-making, funding dissemination of useful information is only going to help doctors better decide what treatment to use and improve the sponsoring pharma’s reputation.

HCPs must consider what the right treatment is for their patient and quite simply a pharma brand or medical website will not offer a balanced view on which to make such a decision. A good independent platform will help HCPs learn the scientific rationale as to why various “brand” treatments may be right or wrong for their patients.

 

 

PHARMA DON’T CONTROL OR OWN THE DATA

“Pharma needs to be more present there and engage with customers. Agree. However, they don’t own the platform, nor the data generated from it. Interaction is limited to what it offers.”

“Pharma has to effectively control access to HCPs only, aims to measure its channels,
CLM is not possible on a third party portal.

The analytics you get from a third-party platform can be significantly more powerful than a pharma’s own site. We provide the opportunity to learn more about a HCPs consumption of key educational messages and therefore deliver relevant and personalised content based on their profile, preferences, and behaviour, as well as those of their peers. This supports re-engagement and deeper learning. From there, we not only measure the engagement, but seek to understand if the content delivered will change behaviour i.e. will they prescribe based on what they learnt.

Lifecycle management is very much possible through our long-term engagement model on Medthority. Programmes adapt and grow through a whole suite of content and channel options that move the audience from unaware to advocates.

Our long-term investment (over two decades) in the technical infrastructure, engagement models, and audience reach means that partnering pharma have far more to gain from collaboration (in a fraction of the time and cost) than they do from building their own for the same purpose.

 

 

GETTING THE BALANCE RIGHT

 

“Pick a card, brand or independent.” Why not hold a hand of cards?!

There needs to be a reasonable balance between brand owned communications and positioning, and scientific argument via third parties and elsewhere. Those who achieve this are (in our opinion and experience) most like to succeed in growing audience, gaining trust, and demonstrating impact at all levels of budget.

Pharma should have branded websites, where they can control their narrative, and in fact they will have a moral obligation to do so. But, they should invest in branded content as part of a balanced marketing and communication strategy that encompasses independent channels – where the end user is likely to place most credence on the scientific argument to which they are exposed.

Are there any doctors out there who would prescribe a treatment simply because they read the brand website? Unlikely.

Most consumers will be inclined to rely on an information aggregator/ curator to understand the market landscape (whether it is an airline seat, a car, a new TV, insurance, restaurant and so on). Having formed a broad view of the landscape, they might then go to a company/brand website to deepen their knowledge of a particular offering. Alternatively, if they happen upon the brand website first, they will then search for independent sources to learn more and validate its credibility or offering versus alternatives.

You can view independent healthcare websites and treatment choices in the same way. And, the greatest impact can be achieved as part of a multichannel/ multi-faceted approach in parallel to activities with sales force, MSL’s and pharma owned websites, which all combine to better align or position their brand with the credible and thought leadership ‘identity’ they have earnt.

Harbouring false beliefs or unfounded concerns about supporting third party channels (around compliance, metrics, ownership etc.) is holding pharma back. They need to cast aside pre-conceived ideas, experiences or ideals and be open to exploring the evolving benefits and opportunities that independent activities/channels present, rather than simply reverting to ‘own’, which they hope (but know will not really) tick the boxes for HCPs.

A focus on being more “digital” (i.e. building websites), will not bring true transformation. To bring about transformational change for HCPs and their business, pharma must get increasingly entrepreneurial with partnerships. This includes finding a way to embrace third party websites.

 

Many thanks to Paul Simms for independently initiating the LinkedIn conversation from which the quotes in this article are taken. Read the full post with 50+comments

 

 

About the author

Michelle Kelly

Marketing Director, EPG HEALTH

Michelle Kelly is division head of Marketing and Market Research at EPG Health. With a focus on supporting meaningful engagement with HCPs, she has more than 20 years’ experience in medical publishing, having previously worked at Nature Publishing Group and Current Science Group. Contact her at [email protected] or on LinkedIn.