The Road Ahead: 2020 Lessons and 2021 Predictions

We entered 2020 with our predictions and plans, never imagining that a global pandemic would change everything within a few short months. It led us down a road on an unexpected journey, challenging the healthcare system, the pharmaceutical industry, and humanity beyond measure.

After what the world experienced this past year, it feels bullish to make predictions while still in the path of the storm. It does, however, feel appropriate and, dare I say, even necessary, to reflect and take inventory of the lessons we have learned and how these lessons can help us predict what’s to come in the new year.

The Lesson: A Walk in Their Shoes

If I asked you to complete the phrase, “2020 has been….”, I undoubtedly would get mostly negative statements—some of them likely pretty crass. But despite all the negative, 2020 has been the year that the world took a humbling walk in the shoes of the chronic care patient. A year that deepened empathy and understanding toward the most vulnerable of us.

As an industry and individually, we navigated health uncertainty, feelings of isolation, and many common frustrations that chronic care patients regularly faced long before COVID-19 was a staple in our daily vocabulary.

Chronic care patients often share that there are two phases to their healthcare journey: “the before” and “the after” diagnosis. The frustration of longing for the before and the living in the after is a push and pull we all now recognize and empathize with having experienced a pandemic.

We now recognize the many things we took for granted in “the before” and understand how different those things may look in “the after.” We understand this experience will fundamentally change the way life looks moving forward.

We can also empathize with isolation. While many of us have lived our lives free from isolation, many chronic care patients have not been so fortunate and were quarantining and self-isolating out of necessity before it was “cool”.

And of course, living our lives with our mind constantly running risk analysis around our health is something we can draw parallels to. “Is going to the store really worth risking my health?” or “should I call the doctor or are these just symptoms of a common cold?” These once lightly made decisions take on a new meaning today.

The Prediction:

What this means for marketers is that we have a newfound sense of empathy and understanding of the patients we all serve. In 2021, we predict that empathetic messaging in healthcare marketing will accelerate and trend.

The Lesson: The Telehealth Tidal Wave

The telehealth train was coming long before the onset of COVID-19 and, as with many other facets of digital adoption, we saw the pandemic as the great accelerator.

In 2018, we surveyed the WEGO Health Patient Leader Network and about 1 in 5 (22%) of Patient Leaders had tried telehealth. Fast forward to 2020 and WEGO Health’s recent research in partnership with the Digital Health Coalition showed that 4 in 10 Patient Leaders utilized telehealth before the pandemic, and 9 in 10 have increased their telehealth utilization since the onset of COVID-19.

We are seeing pharma brands begin to leverage telehealth in a number of ways, from digitally providing educational information and patient-provider telehealth visits to full-on brand launches like that of Imvexxy with telehealth as the main prescription driver.

Digital technologies such as wearables have also increased exponentially, but patient desires in this area are still very practical in nature—the strongest for medication management and self-monitoring tools.

The Prediction:

The rapid adoption and development acceleration of digital technologies is just the beginning. We predict that 2021 will see an increase in strategic partnerships incorporating telehealth and digital technologies into the “patient experience,” with many more brands like Imvexxy partnering with Patient Influencers to spread the word. These partnerships and technologies provide the additional value patients are seeking and also help to strengthen adherence.

The Lesson: A New Day for the PSA

No, we’re not talking about prostate-specific-antigen levels (those are important too), but the good old fashioned public service announcement. While some conditions like HIV have been leveraging PSA’s for consumers for years, we haven’t seen them adopted by the industry in masse.

But 2020 brought a new style of PSA: the “Don’t Neglect Your Health” PSA. We saw television, digital, and social media marketing geared toward encouraging patients to continue to go to their doctors’ appointments and stay on their therapies.

From AstraZeneca “New Normal Same Cancer”

We have even seen industry thought leaders and scientists embracing hot new channels like TikTok as an opportunity to reach people to dispel misinformation and spread public safety awareness around the COVID-19 vaccine and science.

In my [humble] opinion, there has always been a lack of messaging as it relates to adherence coming from pharmaceutical manufacturers. With a staggering 50% of Americans not taking their medications as prescribed, “medication non-adherence” leads to preventable deaths and increased costs to the system.

In the patient community, we see a much higher emphasis on adherence messaging as Patient Influencers understand their power to drive patient behavior. Studies show that patients who receive peer-to-peer support services are more empowered and educated, and as a result, are able to make better healthcare choices and access resources that reduce the barriers to care.

The Prediction:

There is an opportunity for the pharmaceutical industry to partner with patients and HCP’s to continue to spread awareness and reinforce the value of keeping doctors’ appointments, staying on therapy, and managing mental health long after COVID-19 is in the rearview. This is a “hopeful” prediction of ours because, in this digital era, health ownership has never been more important.

The Lesson: A Brave New Virtual World

And we thought we were virtual before 2020! We have to look back and chuckle at our naive selves. HCP marketing, consumer marketing, product launches, and conferences and events all experienced rapid digital transformation.

Within a few short months, we’ve seen brands embracing new technology and partnerships that were years in the making, and the traditional rep-model has been flipped on its head.

Of course, many of these changes were a long time coming with COVID-19 again functioning as the great accelerator. But the question remains, “what ‘normal’ will we return to when this pandemic ends?”

A recent FiercePharma article stated (and we agree), there is no going back. When it comes to in-person promotion, an August 2020 Accenture survey found that 87% of HCP’s want either all virtual or a mix of virtual and in-person meetings after the pandemic ends. As a former pharma rep, I can say from experience in the field that this particular shift was a long time coming.

And the rep model was not the only major change. With nearly all in-person events (both industry and patient-facing) brought to a halt in 2020, the pharmaceutical industry has had to pivot like never before as it relates to both internal and external events.

While we miss in-person events, we also recognize that there is one person that virtual events work really well for—the chronically ill patient. In the past, to attend an in-person summit we would see patients have to move mountains to travel and exhaust themselves in a weekend with a nonstop, action-packed agenda. With many events becoming virtual in 2020, it provided the opportunity for patients who ordinarily could not travel to attend.

And to that point, we also saw a rise in patient webinars in the industry. In a WEGO Health survey conducted in April 2020, when asked what virtual solutions patients’ were seeking from pharma companies, 41% of patients shared that educational webinars were important to them.

We have seen more brands successfully executing webinars, “live” events, and forums utilizing social media and other digital platforms that allow patients to connect with one another and the community seems to be enjoying this new normal.

The Prediction:

While we know there is value in in-person events that is difficult to replicate virtually, we also predict this trend will continue to grow stronger far beyond 2021. The savviest of brands will tap into patients to design, execute, and help promote their virtual events to truly incorporate the patient voice in every digital moment that they are engaging with their audience.

The Lesson: The Year of the Patient Influencer

In 2020, life as we knew it was put on pause. The world turned to social media for information, as a form of escape, and to stay connected. Healthcare queries topped all other searches, and with studio content creation brought to a halt, patient influencers took center stage.

In a recent quarterly landscape survey, WEGO Health learned that 85% of patients are receptive to branded patient influencer marketing. Patients shared that the top considerations in branded campaigns were not the patient influencer’s reach, but their authenticity and transparency.

In the same survey, we found that patients had a greater trust in patient influencers over lifestyle influencers and that patient influencers have a greater influence in medication research over lifestyle influencers.

The Prediction:

While we don’t anticipate celebrity influencers or endorsers going away, we do anticipate more of a mix of influencers across the board in healthcare—including physicians!

With more receptive patients, we’re also seeing more pharma brands dip their toes into the influencer marketing waters. In a recent webinar produced by our team, over 50% of pharma marketers and agencies polled said they were either already testing influencer marketing or planning to do so in 2021. Of those same participants, 2 in 3 said they intended to partner with a mix of patient influencers (nano to mega) in 2021.

We predict this adoption will accelerate, and if done with an emphasis on authenticity, we also anticipate a rise in patient trust as a welcome secondary result.

The Lesson: All Eyes on Inequality & Health Disparities

Not that long ago, health inequality and disparities were the elephants in the room, taking an uncomfortable place under the rug in the healthcare conversation.

But with black and brown communities falling victim to COVID-19 at disproportionately higher rates coupled with horrific events of systemic racism like the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the industry began to open its eyes to the problems we face.

While telehealth adoption rates skyrocket, how will this impact an already daunting digital divide? In a world with “no child left behind,” what about the patient? Patients are being forced to become more accountable for their outcomes, and while some are swimming, others are sinking.

The good news is that, as an industry, we are starting to have these difficult conversations. We are seeing a rapid rise in senior-level Diversity & Inclusion roles within pharmaceutical companies and agencies. We are also seeing a rise in pharma and agency advertising and promotion of D&I to the public.

With movements like Insulin For All and organizations like BLKHLTH finally gaining momentum and a place in the spotlight after years of tireless work, 2020 saw the industry step up in bigger ways than ever before.

The Prediction:

While strides are being made, there is still much work to be done. and we predict that the industry will continue this important work in 2021 and beyond.

The Lesson: Spotlight on Science

Having spent the better part of my career in this industry, I have always known the amazing things that this industry is capable of. This year, the rest of the world got to see.

We watched as pharma companies developed, studied, and gained approval for two COVID-19 vaccines in an unprecedented timeframe with unprecedented efficacy. We watched as scientists and healthcare professionals worked around the clock, their faces scarred with bruising from the masks they wore all in an effort to save lives. We watched as our loved ones suffered, were isolated, and some were buried, as a result of a healthcare pandemic that we as a society never saw coming.

COVID-19 put a spotlight on science and the healthcare industry like never before, and the world got to see the vital work that pharmaceutical companies do.

There has been conflicting research in 2020 to assess how COVID-19 has affected patient trust with Harris Poll research looking optimistic and recent Takeda research skewing more negative. While research is never apples to apples, it does help us to identify trends that are important for the industry.

While WEGO Health research showed that patient trust was relatively split, we did learn one important factor: patients who partner with pharma companies have a greater tendency to hold higher opinions and more trust in the companies with which they work. Gaining a glimpse behind industry walls helps patients to see that we’re all patients and people, with common goals and emotions.

The Prediction:

We predict that we will continue to see a rise in patient trust in the pharma industry in 2021 and beyond. Starting with influencers as an early barometer, trickling down to the patient population as a whole.

The industry has an opportunity to harness this momentum, and we predict that they will through making progress in diversity and inclusion, collaboration with patients, and empathetic messaging.

“Change is inevitable. Evolution, however, is optional.” – Tony Robbins

We look forward to what 2021 will bring for our industry!