Assumptions were made early on about how the health and pharma industries would – and should – communicate during a pandemic. But here, medical communications specialists Becky Jones, Susan Cuozzo and Karen Lipworth reveal some valuable – and rather unexpected – insights.

The way we communicate and discuss scientific data with the medical community has been vastly impacted by COVID-19. Before the pandemic, congresses and face-to-face interactions played a key role in the sharing of data, scientific debate and the building of partnerships and collaborations.

As COVID-19 impacted hospitals, the initial consensus in the pharma world was to step back, extremely sensitive to the likelihood that healthcare professionals (HCPs) would be inundated with urgent clinical work with no time to engage with medcomms. Clearly, the responsible course of action was to make sure nothing distracted HCPs from their new priorities or burden them in any way.


Focused and relevant medcomms have supported HCP capabilities

In fact, the opposite was true. Far from being disengaged from medcomms, after just a few weeks, it became clear that many HCPs were more keen than ever to see data relevant to their area of expertise. This was of course to build their understanding of what impact COVID-19 may have on patients within their own specialty, for example, fresh information about the risks of contracting the virus in patients with common chronic conditions such as diabetes has been welcomed. Clinicians have also appreciated insights into running successful virtual clinics. 

But it also became apparent as the pandemic took hold that some HCPs had become less busy. The rapid adoption of telemedicine to bolster the health service helped HCPs manage their clinical workload better, stratifying patients into those who really needed to be seen in person and those who could be cared for remotely. In some areas, this led to a now well-publicised reduction in approaches to HCPs by people concerned about infection. Medcomms information, in some cases, helped HCPs find new ways to communicate with patients and reassure them.


The power of clear communication is greater than ever

In medical writing, skilful and judicious use of words, language and messaging has never been so important. The pandemic has highlighted just how easily trust can be lost and confusion can set in. Medical writers have always had to write in ways that are credible, justifiable, transparent and human as well as coherent, confident and compelling. These principles seem to apply more than ever now – and their value is widely understood in the context of COVID-19 communications.

More creative approaches have also emerged. Because things can’t be done in the same ways as before, medical writers have become even more resourceful and innovative rather than relying on trusted techniques. Audiences understand the need for change and have responded positively.

Through necessity, the sector has embraced digital channels and tools more willingly than at any previous time. With congresses cancelled and personal interactions either off the table or virtual, it had been assumed that engaging audiences would be difficult. But there has remained a strong appetite for hearing what KOLs have to say about current, relevant topics – and digital channels are being harnessed for this purpose. Trusted opinion and research are more in demand now than ever. They’re just being communicated in different ways.


The relationship between content and channels has changed

As congresses have moved to virtual platforms, registration fees have plummeted. This has allowed access for many who couldn’t previously afford to attend, providing a tremendous new opportunity to vary content and reach a wider audience. 

And congress delegates are clearly willing to take part online. For medcomms experts, it’s all about finding the right types of virtual interactions and designing content thoughtfully to best fit this ‘new normal’. Looking at detailed scientific slides for two hours on a small screen isn’t going to work. There’s so much virtual content available – but most is of the traditional ‘show and tell’ variety.

By investigating virtual channels and developing optimal viewing options and content, it has been possible to not just provide scientific data exchange and facilitate discussions, but do it in a new, impactful and effective way.


Despite lockdown, collaboration is better than ever

As the nation went into lockdown, it was feared that organisations and experts might turn inwards, looking to their own specific fields and responsibilities – literally in isolation. Another wrong assumption. There have been some examples of fantastic collaboration between different therapeutic areas in-house to develop and share best practice. Bigger collaborations across healthcare and pharma have also taken place, such as AstraZeneca joining forces with the UK government to support the worldwide availability of Oxford University’s potential COVID-19 vaccines. There’s also been highly constructive collaboration with pharma and medcomms agencies looking for new and innovative ways to reach HCPs.


HCPs and experts have risen to the digital challenge

The speed and willingness with which experts and organisations have embraced virtual working and information exchange has been truly impressive. In the past, the sector has been accused of lagging behind in its adoption of digital technologies. This pandemic has shown that the will and capability is there to learn and adapt when the need is clear. 

Pharma, healthcare, medcomms and HCP experts and practitioners have so much knowledge and experience which is now being brought together in a range of valuable new collaborations. Resourcefulness and focus have been heightened in an incredibly powerful way and it is an immense honour to be helping the sector harness this to communicate effectively through a crisis.

About the Authors

Karen Lipworth is a writer and healthcare communications strategist with The Difference Collective bringing 20+ years’ experience of engaging with experts and crafting compelling copy.

Susan Cuozzo is an award-winning medical education specialist and accredited publication planner (ISMPP CMPP) and medical writer. Susan has a 20+ year track record of creating strategic scientific communications.

Becky Jones is a medical communications expert with extensive knowledge and over 25 years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry. She is innovative and skilled at translating scientific and technical language into clear and simple messages for specific healthcare professional audiences. 

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