Talking heads – what can pharma learn from 2020?

Talking heads - what can pharma learn from 2020?


As we enter a new year and a next normal, taking time to reflect on the challenges and opportunities that 2020 presented to pharma and the NHS feels important. Pf Magazine brought a group of senior industry leaders together to hear their take on 2020.

In less than 12 months, three COVID-19 vaccines were developed and approved for use by the UK government and considering that the fastest vaccine to date – the mumps vaccine – took four years to develop, it is an incredible accomplishment. Digital transformation swept through the NHS with the roll out of virtual consultations, the scaling up of existing electronic patient record systems, and the deployment of Attend Anywhere and Microsoft Teams at scale across the service1.

Attitudes and digital habits of the general public also changed during 2020, with an Accenture report2 stating that 71% spent more time online during the pandemic, 45% completed online education and 1 in 5 people who ordered their last grocery shop online did so for the first time. Tellingly, 77% expect this behaviour to continue post-crisis. How do these shifts shape the landscape of 2021?

Meeting in the middle

As patient needs changed and demand began to rise when the pandemic hit, Primary and Secondary Care were affected in different ways. 2020 saw a huge move in primary care to some form of online patient consultation. At the peak of the pandemic last year, around 71% of GP consultations were conducted remotely by telephone or video and 25% were conducted face-to-face. This is compared to the same period in 2019, which showed the opposite: around 70% were conducted face-to-face and 25% remotely3.The concept of using triage to access Health Care Professionals (HCPs) increased and it quickly became routine that consultation calls began with a triage call to a professional who was not a GP.

With Secondary Care, there is little doubt that the pandemic hit access to services the hardest. Day services, dermatology services, fracture liaison clinics; just a few examples of services which almost completely disappeared during the first lockdown, due to re-allocation of staff and the closing down of units. Although some of these services resumed towards the end of the year, access to customers in secondary care continues to be a concern for pharma entering 2021.

“The pharma industry’s quick reaction and thoughtful response has undoubtedly improved its standing with customers”

Turning to digital trends and embracing technology proved invaluable when it came to sourcing solutions. As companies began downloading Teams and making video connections with customers, it completely transformed the way they worked. So much so, that for some, the connection with Primary Care customers was able to return almost to normal.
As well as improving outcomes and continuing connections, the pharma industry’s quick reaction and thoughtful response has undoubtedly improved its standing with customers.

Not what we signed up for

From both a pharma and healthcare point of view, there is no doubt that supporting people through a pandemic has been incredibly tough. GPs who thrive on human interaction and community spirit began to feel like call centre operators. Practices in the higher tiers have had to be vigilant about seeing people if not deemed absolutely necessary and close their doors to any non-urgent need patients and pharmaceutical sales representatives. The latter is a challenge that will prevail.

Following initial shock at the start of the pandemic, there came a realisation for everyone, both personally and professionally, that things may never go back to how they were before. Some companies saw individuals and teams push back and almost go through a process of grief, as they realised that their role would change, and their skills must be adapted.

Mental health

As an industry, pharma leapt forward with such force in 2020 that, with the best will in the world, it is ok that some felt left behind. It is ok that some people have taken longer than others to adapt. The industry needs to be mindful of looking in, as well as out as it moves into 2021. 2020 shined a spotlight on the talent in the pharma industry and it is essential to support, protect and develop that talent internally so that it can continue to thrive.

There is no doubt that adapting, and evolving is both beneficial and essential, especially when a crisis hits. But, on a day-to-day level this is easier said than done and living in fight or flight mode can be draining. NHS staff and those on the pharma frontline are working tirelessly, with little respite.

When focusing on the mental health of people out in the community, it would be remiss to ignore the needs of those in the industry who have the talent to transform lives. How that is shaped and by managers and leaders in the industry will be important in 2021.

Specialist services – beyond the pill

For many pharma companies, the operational strategy put in place at the start of 2020 would prove unrecognisable by the end of the year. Whether big or small pharma, what organisations have achieved so far internally is astonishing. Keeping the patient at the forefront of everything, the industry has supported very vulnerable people in a way that suited the individual.

“Keeping the patient at the forefront of everything, the industry has supported very vulnerable people in a way that suited the individual”

Although the pandemic is far from over, pharma and the NHS already have a better understanding of how to work together to meet patient needs. There is agreement on both sides that moving away from transactional to true partnership is the way forward. 2020 forced industry to take the time to put aside commercial targets and understand patient care and how people were getting through the crisis. Pharma respected frontline HCPs as the pandemic took hold and asked itself how it could offer solutions beyond the pill. This sudden shift and internal reflection has shaped services that are fit for purpose moving forward.

Sales and marketing

The ability to access customers remotely has increased significantly during the pandemic. For sales representatives there have been no geographical constraints and no travel time. It no longer matters where a rep lives and how this might fit into territory designs. This will have a big impact on recruitment practices in the future and, as organisations look to future-proof, managers will be considering how candidates come across virtually and how their skills and capabilities hold up in the digital world.

Multi-channel selling has been a higher priority in sales teams, as well as multi-channel content management, and Veeva approved email has allowed personalised, compelling dialogue with customers. Understanding that customers need key information during the pandemic has also stimulated pharma marketers to be better, to do better, and improve the quality of their output.

However, for all the work that the pharma sales force is doing remotely, how can they ensure they get the same response that traditionally came from face-to-face interaction? How can the industry track that and measure it through a robust marketing programme?


When we talk about trust and pharma, conversation often comes back to the COVID-19 vaccine. But what effect did 2020 have on the industry’s reputation? At the start of the pandemic, most GPs had never seen a panic like it. Pharma, and indeed patients, responded in a similar way; quietly and respectfully, which gave the NHS room to breathe.

Many patients felt they did not want to bother GPs with concerns which would not be deemed urgent. In some cases, this proved detrimental, with doctors encouraging patients to come forward with their health concerns, despite Covid-19 concerns.

As pharma stepped away to re-assess how it could add value beyond the pill, it returned to engage with customers in a collaborative and consultative way. It gave them time and space when they needed it and re-engaged in a way that suited them, rather than itself.

Thanks to its flexibility and transparency, the reputation of the industry has been transformed in a short space of time.

Consider the challenges

As impressive as it has been to see pharma’s response to the pandemic, there is no doubt that there have been, and will continue to be, challenges heading into 2021. In terms of digital transformation, the general consensus seems to be that it has proved relatively straightforward to transition an already established relationship, whether internally or externally, to a virtual platform. Where you have people trying to forge new relationships, break into a new territory, introduce themselves to new customers or are new to the industry themselves, there are obstacles to overcome.

Part of adding value is proving to customers that an organization is more than a commercial commodity and this may take longer to establish remotely than if there was a face-to-face relationship.

When throwing people into digital world, is enough being done to ensure that they have the skills to stay afloat?

Moving forward

It is clear there are threads to weave together here and a complex mix of things to consider as the industry navigates a new year and more challenges. With new ways of remote working, needs to come clear guidance from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (APBI).

“Despite an incredibly difficult year, there has been a reversal of fortune for the pharma industry and the size of the prize is enormous”

Crucially, how can pharma’s response to COVID-19 be replicated in other areas of healthcare? One might argue that only a crisis can produce such transformation under pressure. However, if you move the microscope away from coronavirus for just a second, there are other areas on the cusp of a crisis. At the end of 2020, Cancer Research UK announced cuts of £45 million from its research budget. This was on top of the £44 million cuts made to current grants at the start of the pandemic, meaning the charity was unable to fund any new clinical trials in 2020. These cuts led to 24 fewer research programmes, 68 fewer projects and 12 fewer fellowships, and a projection from Cancer Research UK that there would be around 328 fewer researchers working on their research4.

How can pharma foster the opportunity that 2020 presented it with? Despite an incredibly difficult year, there has been a reversal of fortune for the pharma industry and the size of the prize is enormous. What might pharma achieve by the end of 2021? As Clap for Carers returns under the new name Clap for Heroes, Boris Johnson has reportedly told colleagues5 in a meeting that there should be a ‘clap for big pharma’. How times have changed.


1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5