A version of this article was previously published in the Journal of mHealth.
Two weeks into the new year, you have likely already seen multiple articles on the key trends of 2023 and predictions for 2024. Many of these discuss the expanding role and capabilities of AI and machine learning in the Pharma space. Others might talk about the return of in-person meetings after the COVID-19 pandemic. Additional topics making the news include the increased focus on diversity and inclusion in the life science industry and clinical trial space, as well as sustainability. While we’re not disagreeing with any of these trends, in this article, we’re taking a slightly different angle, instead looking at the top-5 emerging virtual collaboration trends.
1. The new way to engage KOLs at conferences: virtual Ambassador programs
To start off the top-5, let’s take a look at how Pharma is shifting the way they engage key opinion leaders (KOLs) at medical congresses and conferences.
In 2023, Medical Affairs teams looking to not only gather conference insights but also disseminate the relevant takeaways to the wider medical community increasingly turned to virtual Ambassador programs. In these online programs, a handful of carefully selected KOLs attending the congress are asked to summarize abstracts that will be of special interest to other healthcare providers from their country/region or specialty. These summaries are reworked into a variety of custom outputs such as chapterized videos, podcasts, slide decks, infographics, graphic abstracts, and more. In turn, these can be disseminated to the target audience via medical association newsletters, secure online community boards, websites, social media, etc.
2. Discovering healthcare gaps, barriers, and intervention points using online patient journey mapping
With the increased focus on patient-centricity in Pharma, getting a holistic view of the patient journey is becoming a must-have for teams looking to understand how their product or service will impact patient care. Virtual patient journey mapping has gained popularity this past year as an effective way to discover healthcare gaps and intervention points, understand and improve patient experiences and outcomes, and streamline the patient journey. The virtual format enables diverse stakeholders, including patients, caregivers, patient advocates, physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and allied health providers, to share their unique perspectives without geographical, language, or time zone barriers.
3. Co-creation of consensus papers and other outputs through asynchronous Delphi reviews
The Delphi method has been used for decades to reach expert consensus and develop guidelines within the medical field. Traditionally, it involves multiple rounds of questionnaires sent to a panel of experts, with their anonymous responses aggregated and shared with the group after each round. While this approach is useful for avoiding groupthink and bias, it can often be a slow, time-consuming (and thereby expensive) process.
Enter today’s state-of-the-art virtual collaboration tools. These days, questionnaires can be programmed and answered directly in a compliant online portal, innovative question types other than basic yes/no or multiple-choice can be added, and additional rounds can be launched quicker than ever before. Activities can be customized to be fully (or partially) anonymous or to allow authors to see how their peers responded. In 2023, Pharma turned to virtual Delphi reviews to co-create everything from consensus papers to suggested treatment algorithms with their key stakeholder, and there are no signs of this trend slowing down.
4. Getting timely feedback on materials from digital content councils
Another hot trend in virtual collaboration from 2023 is “Digital Content Councils,” wherein a group of experts—typically physicians or other healthcare providers—are engaged on a continuous basis to provide feedback on a variety of educational, promotional, or patient support materials. Unlike advisory boards, these virtual programs focus (almost) exclusively on reviewing materials and resource drafts. Similar to virtual Delphi reviews, this longitudinal approach allows teams to get timely feedback soon after updates have been made to the materials, resulting in consensus being reached much faster. Over the past few months, we have noted an increase in companies asking for feedback on not only printed materials such as brochures and posters, but also on websites, videos, podcast snippets, slide decks, and other diverse resources.
5. Educational platforms for live and on-demand knowledge-sharing
Lastly, the pandemic brought many changes in how healthcare providers and patients want to access content and knowledge-sharing opportunities. In short, it is all about catering to different preferences at the same time. Some physicians still prefer to communicate via emails. Some want to attend live meetings (whether web-based, hybrid, or in person) to be able to network “face-to-face.” Others want to have access to information on demand, at their fingertips.
To cater to all of these preferences at the same time, we are seeing Pharma teams turn to online educational platforms that can be used to host both video/audio/visual content, on-demand webinar recordings, and live virtual meetings. Ideally, the same platform should allow participants to easily connect with their MSL or Pharma rep via email or phone/video call, answer questions from the sponsor or their peers in the portal, and network with other participants over secure discussion forums. Depending on the context, educational components such as eLearning modules and quizzes might be added. It really is all about personalization and preference.
What to expect in 2024
In the new year, these virtual collaboration trends will continue, with compliant AI features starting to become incorporated more routinely. The focus on diversity, both in terms of the participants’ demographic and socioeconomic characteristics and diversity of thought, will persist and likely grow even more. Despite the return of in-person meetings, pharmaceutical manufacturers and their stakeholders have experienced the benefits of virtual collaboration, and now realize that there is no going back.