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Driving Digital Progress in Medical Affairs​

14 Sep 2021

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-09-01-2021, Volume 41, Issue 9

Digital transformation in medical affairs made a sluggish start, but there is plenty to be optimistic about.

Last year, the Medical Affairs Digital Strategy Council, in association with Indegene, called for action in medical affairs to champion the technological changes needed to deliver customer-centric experiences. First, the Council needed to assess the existing level of digital capabilities and effectiveness across the function. It initiated the Medical Affairs Digital Excellence Survey, the results of which were announced in July. The survey revealed that while 67% of the medical affairs professionals questioned said that their organization had ambitious digital plans, only 27% are currently satisfied with their digital progress. The study questioned 15 companies about 12 medical affairs capabilities where digital processes and activities can be employed, including content creation; customer relationship management (CRM); medical information; multichannel/omnichannel medical strategy; mobile apps; and touchpoint integration. Multichannel/omnichannel was identified as the most impactful of the digital capabilities. Only 27% of companies have implemented a multichannel/omnichannel medical strategy at a global level, but the remaining 73% indicated they were planning to do this. Content creation was also revealed as a core capability for all teams surveyed. On the other hand, only 27% of companies have implemented mobile apps, and 47% said they do not plan to implement them.

Among the main challenges medical affairs divisions still face in driving digital progress, the survey concluded, are navigating the tension between enterprise and functional ownership of digital strategy; the need to build global capabilities to address new digital opportunities; legal constraints, including privacy laws; and gaining internal buy-in around digital. Further, digital transformation is still foundational at a country level and often reactive to environmental circumstances.

"Medical affairs is at an earlier stage in its journey of digitalization than some other pharma functions," says Mary Alice Dwyer, PharmD, VP of consulting services at Synetic Life Sciences and chair of the Medical Affairs Digital Strategy Council. "It is still asking how to accelerate the implementation of digital in the right way. Everyone is working as diligently as possible, but it's complicated." She told Pharm Exec, "Part of the problem is choosing where to focus, where to invest." One of the primary challenges is having staff with expertise in developing, managing, and assessing the impact of digital assets. "Do you, for example, hire a medical person, and train them in digital?" says Dwyer. "Or do you bring a digital person in and train them in medical affairs?" Kay Uttech, VP, strategic initiatives at Indegene, adds that "skillsets are growing, but demand and competition for talent is also very high across the industry." Additionally, "in some situations digital transformation is led by the commercial organization and medical affairs is thought of second-line. There is a significant opportunity for it to be out front leading digital transformation for scientific exchange."

There are reasons for optimism, however. While the survey reports "a level of frustration that more is not being done faster," it adds that "there is a clear intention to adopt best practices in the future." Indeed, there is increased urgency for digital initiatives, and over the last year, says Dwyer, COVID-19 has been a significant accelerator, with 80% of survey respondents stating that the pandemic had advanced digital transformation within the medical affairs function. Advances have also been made using artificial intelligence in the medical legal review process to ensure label information is correct, adds Uttech. "Additionally, machine learning has played a significant role in the development of automated content generation within medical information and the development of medical affairs tools for communication."

Medical affairs organizations "clearly see the need for digital initiatives," says Uttech. The current challenges arise from limited resources and funding; these challenges are greater in smaller organizations where team members may have broader responsibilities. She concludes, "Digital transformation across all medical affairs functions at one time can be a daunting task, both in terms of the overall number of processes impacted and in prioritizing where to start. This can impede progress, but the best action is to start small and create small wins to demonstrate value."

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