Digital Pharma East recap: What’s trending in healthcare

Last week at the Digital Pharma East conference, we had the opportunity to connect with over 1,000 healthcare marketing professionals to share learnings on how to become digital champions.

Pharmaceutical companies have embraced the efforts that are needed to “digitally transform” the customer experience. While only 4% - 11% of pharmaceutical companies rate their digital marketing transformation a success (compared to the industry average of 26%), they are focused on the steps needed to digitally transform.

It’s important to note that a key reason as to why they fall below the industry average is because pharma is a regulated industry. Dan Gandor, Abbvie’s Director of U.S. Customer Experience of Oncology and Virology said, “Take med-legal along for the journey. Several of them might not be digitally savvy. They need to understand channels and realize things are fluid. Remember, it’s a journey and takes a village of marketers to succeed.”

At the conference, attendees shared what’s trending in the healthcare industry and the key things marketers are focusing on for their digital transformation. Let’s further explore these trends.

Trend #1:

Artificial intelligence is being incorporated into marketing programs

As Alison Woo, Novartis’ Director and Social Media Lead for U.S. Pharma, stated, “Artificial intelligence is a thing of today. And it’s starting to have an effect on treatment decision, algorithms used, payment, clinical trial and truly the entire lifecycle of medicine.”

To continue the discussion, Pete Dannenfelser, Ferring Pharmaceuticals’ Associate Vice President of Communications and Digital Innovation, added: “Consumers are leveraging technologies like ‘Alexa’ to become oriented on their diseases and so much more.”

Additionally, there was a lot of discussion around wearables. The wearable medical device market is expected to reach more than $27 million by 2023, a spectacular jump from almost $8 million in 2017. The most common medical related wearable devices include heart rate sensors, exercise trackers, sweat meters (used for diabetes to monitor blood sugar levels) and oximeters (monitors the amount of oxygen carried in the blood and is often used by patients with respiratory illnesses such as COPD or asthma).

With all this modernized technology, a few presenters shared how instead of being seen by a doctor, we will soon be seen by a robot. Although Lisa French, Merck’s Associate Vice President of U.S. Strategy and Commercial Model Innovation, shared, “By 2020, 85% of consumers -- when they interact with the healthcare system , it will be non-human”.

Trend #2:

Digital transformation teams are shifting to a cross-functional format

“Brand teams need to do all” is a thing of the past. Today’s digital transformation teams need to be cross-functional and include all areas of the business from IT, product, med-legal, brand, marketing, sales, HR and so on. Forming a centralized team is key.

To get to the ideal digital transformation team, many pharmaceutical companies are hiring C-Level executives (customer experience and digital transformation experts) from other industries.

As Wesley Van Den Huevel, Director of Novo Nordisk, shared, “Hiring outside the pharma industry is going to bring in a whole new level of expertise. At Novo Nordisk we hire executives from leading brands such as Nike, L’Oreal and Disney.” While although these industries are different, the skill set is transferrable and they bring a fresh look on things with lots of new ideas.

Additionally, discussions were had around forming teams according the digital product (website, social, email, mobile for example) with cross-functional team members to truly maximize all skill sets. Matt LaSamanis, Glaxo Smithkline’s Vice President of Technology and CIO, shared, “We’ve moved to a model where digital products are what we exclusively focus on. Within this framework, the digital products are driving the model.”

So as you’re re-aligning your teams, get your organization thinking in an experiment mindset and you, as the leader, make sure to maintain a peripheral vision. Ultimately, it comes down to the culture of your people – your teams. Culture is fundamentally based on behavior, and simple cultural changes will help. And as a team, it’s important to focus on an outcome, not a function.

To achieve your internal organization adjustments, consider hiring a strategist who’s an expert in change management.

Trend #3:

Innovation forums are being created to foster new ideas

I’m sure when you think of innovation, a particular brand comes to mind. For example, several of the auto manufacturers have elite innovation centers, such as Ford, where they work on the new generation of electric vehicles, human machine interaction, etc.

Thinking with an innovative mindset and being innovative is a must for pharmaceutical companies and creating a dedicated area for your employees to be innovative is important. Here they can experiment and share ideas in a ‘non-risk’ environment. And part of being innovative is accepting the fact that you might fail at times.

The Abbvie team shared the details of their innovation program called “Future Fit”. A feature of the program includes a ‘fail fast bin’ which reflects that it’s okay to fail at times; in fact, it’s accepted. Employees learn from their failures and it’s important to be able to do so in a non-threatening environment.


Additionally, they discussed how Abbvie looks outside the pharma industry to learn different techniques and approaches. They have an in-house team that’s constantly challenging the status quo. They refer to these team members as their Agility Experts (also known as ‘Innovative Ninjas’).

Also, make sure to have these innovative discussions with the agencies in which you partner with. Consider having an innovation day for your 2020 marketing planning and invite all of your agencies to join and task them with coming up with new and innovative ideas for you to add to your marketing plans.

Trend #4:

Patients and doctors are people too – they want to be communicated to as consumers

There were a lot of conversations at the event on how patients and doctors want to be communicated to as consumers.

From the patients’ perspective, it was interesting as they shared how they dislike being inundated with advertisements educating them about their disease or reminding them to take their medication.

One patient suffering from psoriasis said, “Enough already! Instead of focusing on the negative effects of my disease, why don’t they educate me on the other things I can be doing to make me feel better about myself? For example, exercising, or applying make-up that was created to cover the peeling red blotches, etc. I’m human first, a woman with psoriasis second.”

Patients are people – and they are consumers. And understanding where these consumers (patients) are and what they are doing is really what’s trending. Today’s patient has so many options as to what they can do, the options for treating their disease, etc., that it’s created more of a transactional relationship between the patient and physician.

Patients want to become more active in conversations with doctors about their chronic conditions. And they want their doctors to understand both the physical and emotional aspects of their disease.


Additionally, online communities are a source of comfort. Within these communities, patients realize they are not alone; the emotional component of the disease takes a toll on patients. Doctors often miss this emotional component as there’s so much focused on the physical aspects. It’s important to remember that patients are people; they are consumers filled with emotions and they want doctors to understand their emotions.

Trend #5:

Endemic content is king

First off, please don’t assume that the same content will work year after year. Patients change, and their healthcare needs change as well. And these patients want personalized content. In fact, Alison Reichart, Pfizer’s Director of Digital Strategy and Innovation, shared, “58% of US online adults are interested in personalizing their website experience for health”.


Additionally, it’s important to understand why endemic content matters and the importance of context in creating trust. We learned that only one in three consumers understand what’s going on with their disease. Intersect both the patients’ and pharma’s needs through advertising.

For example, one speaker shared how she was on her banking website and a targeted healthcare ad appeared: “If you’re on a banking website, you’re not apt to click on a healthcare ad; it’s a different emotional reaction and I just can’t shake it or get rid of it. When a Northface ad appears, I find it intrusive; but a Psoriasis ad is evasive. Please give me a minute to stop reminding me of my disease; and let me look for (research) the information I need.” Pharma marketers need to learn what the right balance is for pushing data versus the consumer’s choice.

It’s no doubt that there’s multiple pressures impacting the U.S. healthcare market and mastering digital transformation, that has a fully integrated omnichannel approach, is no easy task. During the conference, attendees were surveyed to help us develop an understanding of where they’re at on their omnichannel journey and here’s the results:

  • 0% stated they are operating in a single channel only
  • 75% stated they are operating in a cross-channel strategy
  • 25% stated they’ve incorporated a multi-channel strategy
  • 0% stated they’re doing omnichannel marketing


So as you’re fine tuning your digital transformation strategy, make sure you’re keeping trust and transparency front and center. Don’t be afraid to take risks. And always think with an innovative mindset. Discover ways as to how you can improve your healthcare marketing efforts.

For example, Takeda shared how they’re taking a mobile, patient-first journey. They’ve implemented a mobile e-card that provides patients with savings while increasing their adherence to taking their medication. The mobile e-card provides a constant communication stream.



Next steps

To continue your learnings on how you can improve your customer’s experience as you embrace the digital transformation, download our e-book: 9 ways healthcare marketers are improving the customer experience.