Healthcare and pharma communications has changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, we share our Collective insight into three influences and innovations that we believe will stick.

Like all lockdown birthdays, this one is Different. Instead of inviting clients to help us blow out our third birthday candles on Zoom, we asked some of the leading experts in our Collective to share their insights into how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted three key areas.

Asking the big questions about our Collective experiences of client work in an unexpectedly Different world has given us new perspectives. We’re beginning to identify some changes that we feel will endure as we move on through the crisis, and the challenges and opportunities that our healthcare clients will want to get to grips with in a changed landscape.

 
We know the pandemic has been devastating and its impact on so many people will be felt for many years to come. Of course, there is no real silver lining here, but we’ve chosen to look for some of the positives and will explore those negative impacts in other posts, soon.

 

1. What’s changing in healthcare and pharma?

i) Trust and reputation 

There are huge increases in trust in the healthcare industry right across the board. We need to sustain it and continue to demonstrate that we deserve public trust. The belief in science is roaring back into society.
     
HCPs and scientists are seen as trusted sources of online information for the truth around COVID-19. Pharmaceutical companies are also earning their place as reputable sources of information. Cynicism has largely been set aside, for the time being at least, as people look to them as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
   
There’s real pride in the sector from our clients as well as a vastly increased public sense of trust and appreciation. These reflect the extent of our sector’s collective commitment to vaccines and treatments and the valuable role the UK life sciences industry has to play. It’s our job to help sustain and continue to grow this. 

 

Angie Wiles, Jo Williams, Stuart Mayell

 
ii) Hygiene literacy

There’s so much greater hygiene literacy among the general public now – a wider understanding of the way airborne viruses are transmitted.
 
People are far more aware of the cough that they used to forget to cover their mouths for. For vulnerable patients, this is hugely important: we live in hope that the public will maintain this hygiene awareness and standards to protect them after the pandemic as well.

Healthcare organisations have really had to step up to the challenge of making health information, science and advice around COVID-19 understandable. Properly clear consumer communication must be a continuing priority in the sector.

 

Louise Watson, Michelle Healy-Thomas, Candida Halton

iii) Patient access

The pandemic is driving accessibility improvements, breaking down barriers, cutting through red tape and accelerating a transition to a more digital-first environment. New channels, platforms and technologies are making it easier for patients to access information and advice when they can’t visit their usual doctor or healthcare provider.

 

There’s been a focus on self-awareness and self-care, with healthcare companies quick to change how they do things and provide resources online so people have the information they need to make informed choices about behaviour and symptoms.

 

New ways to support patient consultations through different channels have emerged. There has been some exceptional innovation, delivered at speed. For example, a number of large consumer healthcare providers have stepped up rapidly to use secure digital media instead of face-to-face advice and diagnosis.

 

Jo Williams, Louise Watson, Candida Halton

2. What’s changing our communications landscape?

i) Authenticity

Internal communications from senior management has increased exponentially and those that have managed to humanise their engagement have connected well with their teams. Providing a true sense of empathy has been critical. Principles really matter – the value of corporate and issues advice is more recognised than ever.
 
The question “how are you?” is no longer a polite email or conversation opener which is quickly bypassed. It’s now a genuine question seeking to understand the challenges clients and staff are facing personally and professionally. Similarly, effective external campaigns are showing more humanity and empathy and less of an overtly promotional focus. They need to do this in a differentiated and specific way, moving beyond a facile “we’re here for you” message.
 
COVID-19 is a once-in-a-lifetime story: the public has demanded clarity and information from trusted media sources in a world awash with online fake news. Journalists have remained at the coal face, keeping the public informed, scrutinising and holding the Government and its decisions to account.

 

Alexandra Harrison, Liz Adams, Jo Willey

 
ii) Digital expertise

The sudden mass adoption of digital technologies has shown organisations in every sector that digital transformation is possible and opens up new possibilities for engagement in communications.

 
The importance of digital is no longer up for debate – which it commonly has been up to now particularly in pharma. In healthcare, the pandemic is finally driving a transition to a lasting, digital-first environment. Genuine digital experience and expertise are now premium skills that healthcare agencies and comms specialists need. There was an initial rush to get digital resources out there: now they are, organisations want to ensure they achieve better quality, relevance and appropriateness. 
 
Some charities have succeeded in innovating fast, launching pioneering digital solutions to run their services and finding new ways to fundraise.                                    
Louise Watson, Wayne Page, Elspeth Massey

 
iii) Creativity

For many organisations and people in healthcare, the pandemic has either forced or inspired more creative and disruptive ways of thinking and strategising. It’s not been possible to rely on the old familiar ways of doing things, so blue sky thinking has been given a boost.
 
Individuals are reaching for new forms of expression. You can’t promote your personal brand through showy purchases. What you think and how you feel must be expressed in other ways. For example, there seems to be a flowering of personal craft and creation which can only have a beneficial impact on ideas in professional contexts. 

 

Creative design skills are now more valued to create cut-through and to explain concepts and information simply. One piece of work may have many functions – to communicate exploration, innovation, safety, efficacy, confidence and reassurance on both the technical and emotional level.

Karen Lipworth, Stuart Mayell, Michelle Healy-Thomas

3. What’s changing how we work?

i) Virtual working
               
Departments and organisations have come together with urgency and purpose to tackle very specific and immediate challenges related to COVID-19. This is virtual collaboration like we’ve never seen before. 
 
We are seeing a dichotomy in the workforce. Some people are longing to get back to the office, others have discovered they prefer working from home. Organisations have had to enable truly diverse and blended teams to get the best from everyone, keeping people connected without forcing it.
 
The reset effect of lockdown has made many workers keen to embrace a more measured approach to work, collaboration and planning. We recognised this unmet need three years ago and designed and launched The Difference Collective with remote working practice inbuilt. The pandemic has hugely increased mainstream adoption of the approach – we’ve been able to offer ourselves as a reassuring exemplar that it really can work and does deliver results.
Rod Cartwright, Sarah Hodson, Karen Lipworth

 
ii) Community power

Local products and services, local businesses and communities have earned trust and goodwill from consumers in a time of global challenge. People are looking to their neighbours, showing and valuing care, kindness and resourcefulness.
 
Community power has become a strong resource for charities, a vital way to help them navigate the pandemic. 
 
Confined to their homes in lockdown, for some a necessity if they have a particular vulnerability, patients have formed and sought out their own online groups. Although there’s caution because of heavy regulation, more healthcare companies are open to using social media to talk directly to patients as a community.

 

Louise Watson, Elspeth Massey, Jo Williams

 
iii) Collaboration

Challenging times call for challenging and disruptive ways of thinking. This is particularly the case when it comes to building collaborative communities that bring together diverse and complementary disciplines to help tackle very specific challenges. Within organisations as well, functions such as human resources, legal, risk, strategy and communication are collaborating as never before, given the all-consuming impact of COVID-19 on many organisations.

 
Because organisations need to muster skills fast, there’s been a demand for rapid access to specialist expertise to respond to unprecedented needs and to complete the capability of precisely focused teams. Agility and responsiveness are key, as well as knowing where to find the skills you need. Successfully and repeatedly finding the right short-term skills on demand will change the way some organisations resource in the long term.
 
The way in which work is being produced now requires a level of collaboration and integration which is totally new. Before, a team too often described a bunch of people in the same building, going to the same project meetings. Right now, working on a major brief can involve dozens of staff as well as user-generated content, then stitching it all together coherently. And no-one is sat within the same postcode. That’s genuine teamwork.  

 

Rod Cartwright, Liz Adams, Stuart Mayell

In true Collective style, our consultants jumped at the chance to share their thoughts – so thank you to all who contributed to the insights above. And thank you to every one of our 105 Difference Collective members for making such a positive impact on healthcare communications for our clients.
 
As we mark three successful years of The Difference Collective, I also want to thank all our clients for believing in us and joining us on our journey. Our skills, expertise and agility are needed more than ever in these challenging times.

 

From Angie and everyone at The Difference Collective

 

About the author

Angie, Founder, has worked in healthcare communications for nearly 30 years, ultimately building one of the most successful UK healthcare consultancies. Throughout her career, she has constantly looked to do things differently and make a difference to the healthcare communications industry.

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