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The Future of Medical Affairs: Real-Time Data and Digital-First Networking Take Center Stage

The irony is not lost on medical affairs teams that the moment in time when the world is most fixated on clinical development is also the time when all the rules of the game have suddenly changed overnight. It would be one thing if the world’s leading clinical minds could band together, convene a wartime congress, grab sidebars with key opinion leaders (KOLs) and network their way to new life-saving therapies. Instead, they’re left with Zoom calls and e-mail.

The established ways of getting to the information and influencers medical affairs teams need to succeed are currently not viable. For example, now that virtual conferences have replaced live events, medical affairs professionals cannot just walk up to someone after his or her presentation and introduce themselves. In addition, most healthcare providers are still choosing not to meet in-person for anything deemed “non-essential” and it's difficult to predict a time when things will return to normal.

So, how do medical affairs teams continue to deliver critical education and information about life-saving therapies during this tumultuous time? Successful teams are doing two things differently: finding new ways to get needed information and upping their technology and networking skills.

The Data-Driven Medical Affairs Team of the Future

Medical affairs teams have always relied on data to find the healthcare providers (HCPs) and other healthcare influencers they need to reach. But the lag time in the bibliometric approach most companies use to do this is simply not tenable in the current environment.

Spurred by the pandemic, many medical affairs teams have turned to a more patient-centric approach. Instead of scouring Google and PubMed and walking the floors of medical meetings to find highly cited authors, then approaching those KOLs to consult on the drug development process, these medical affairs teams are starting with patient data first. They are tracking real-time epidemiology to identify the pockets of patients with a particular condition, or at a particular stage of progression, and then building outreach strategies based on that information.

This methodological flip on the old model of physician targeting allows the medical affairs team to zero in on the discreet patient populations most relevant to a specific therapy. Most importantly, the granularity provided by this technology allows life sciences companies to put real patients at the center of their clinical development strategies.

Successful Medical Affairs Professionals are Refining Their Skills

In addition to incorporating dynamic data into their strategies, many medical affairs teams have realized they need to refine their skill sets for this new era of digital-first physician and patient engagement.

Joe Elassal of Regeneron recently explained the phenomenon as it is playing out on his team: “Relationship building is not going away; we’re just increasingly leveraging technology. I envision we will continue using this type of tech in combination with in-person engagement once we are past the pandemic.”

In some cases, this hybrid approach of blending newer digital strategies with the tried-and-true rules of engagement has already begun, helping medical affairs teams raise their games despite the challenges presented by COVID-19.

“Medical affairs teams will continue to thrive during the pandemic because they are being forced to create carefully planned virtual engagements,” explained Jason Olin of Akebia Pharmaceuticals. He continued, “Technology is now more important than ever, especially when combined with the soft skills needed for effective scientific exchange."

The Path Ahead

While COVID-19 has created a huge disruption for Medical Affairs teams, those that manage to harness digital tools to improve engagement will be the most successful in the years to come. That combination of efficient targeting and seamless connectivity is already proving its mettle in speeding the pace of urgent clinical trials and creating highly personalized insights that were not possible just a few years ago.

By incorporating dynamic data for information and targeting and getting comfortable with a modified approach to engagement, medical affairs teams are succeeding at challenging the status quo at a time when the stakes are at their highest.

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