MAPS 2022: Omnichannel is a Popular Topic for Medical Affairs, with Many Looking to the Experts on How to Make It Work

Written by James Turnbull, Global Head of Omnichannel Communications on Wednesday 6th April 2022

Finally back in-person, the annual MAPS conference for 2022 had many essential topics to cover for Medical Affairs professionals. COVID-19, of course, represented a big change in this year’s agenda compared with 2020, but another topic cropped up even more – the rise of omnichannel had snuck up on us.

The term omnichannel has been borrowed from consumer marketing and, via its application within commercial pharmaceutical teams, has come to mean communication strategies for personalized, user-centric engagement. Essentially, giving healthcare professionals (HCPs) the content they want, through the right channel, and at the right time. Communication should focus on the audience, not the message.

However, for the Medical Affairs professionals attending MAPS 2022, much of the discussion centered around definitions and comparisons of omnichannel vs multichannel, and there was little time to discuss the real-world application of omnichannel strategies within their teams.

The first session I attended was titled “Learning from other industries how digital can be an accelerator to Medical Affairs”, …but was introduced with a subtle change on the day – we would be exploring “omnichannel” as an accelerator, not “digital” as billed. A shrewd change to recognize the hot topic of the day, but one that had the potential to introduce confusion – omnichannel engagement is not just digital by another name.

Either way, the session benefited from two excellent speakers. Firstly, Selene De La Cruz, whose experience and advice on generating content were clearly applicable to Medical Affairs strategy – whether omnichannel, digital, or neither. Selene gave clear examples on the value of bite-sized content that links to further information, which she referred to as progressive disclosure. This echoed well with the user journeys commonly generated as part of an omnichannel approach.

The second speaker, David Dylan Thomas, presented a vast array of bias examples and suggestions on how to avoid them. His advice on using “red vs blue teams” to internally pressure-test strategies resonated strongly with the audience, and many walked away excited about applying this concept in their teams.

However, many were still seeking a solution on how to best apply omnichannel to Medical Affairs, which was clearly demonstrated at a roundtable later that day.

The scene had been set for 15–20 attendees to debate the “what, why, and how?” of omnichannel. By the time the roundtable session started, there were at least 80 attendees, sitting five layers deep around the table, all keen for answers to these questions.

To begin, Cassie Stox of MedThink Communications provided a clear definition of omnichannel vs multichannel, and some delightful hand-drawn flip chart “slides” that offered the perfect anecdote to PowerPoint-over-Zoom. However, the setup of the room and high number of attendees affected the discussion, resulting in some participants shouting out questions, such as “Is there really value in the overhead of personalizing every piece of content in every channel?” and “Is that feasible and, again, why?!”. Having previously discussed several of these issues with the speaker, I tried to answer these concerns to those who could hear me. However, the unforeseen large audience meant that not everyone’s questions could be addressed, inevitably leaving some attendees unsure how to proceed with omnichannel.

On the third day, and in the final slot of the whole conference, a workshop offered teachings on how to deliver the omnichannel experience through the comfort of a non-digital medium: the classic board game. A smaller group, the pre-game briefing, and allotted timeslot were nearly lost to a heated discussion on re-defining what omnichannel might actually mean for Medical Affairs teams.

It was during this discussion that I quoted my favorite statistic of the moment, possibly for the 100th time at the conference: in a recent study, 65% of HCPs felt “spammed” by at least one pharma company during the pandemic[1]. To me, this tells a succinct tale of frustration and annoyance with poorly targeted, generic content.

And that fact encompasses the problem that omnichannel offers to solve. It is no longer good enough for pharma companies to continue creating digital content and hope it meets HCPs’ needs. HCPs are currently being bombarded with irrelevant communications – an audience-centric omnichannel strategy could avoid this.

During the same discussion, a seasoned Medical Affairs industry expert commented that, in the ‘old days’, MSLs would have the direct cellphone number of their HCPs, as trusted partners, but this wasn’t the case for the equivalent sales rep from the same company.

However, the dynamics of these relationships has now shifted, and commercial teams are embracing an omnichannel approach. Today’s sales reps are often supported by a multitude of tailored content and channels, answering HCPs questions in their preferred formats and at the right level of detail. Medical Affairs communications need to also adapt to this personalized approach, so that they can access the equivalent of the direct line, avoid becoming the annoyance with “spam” content, and continue to be that trusted medical partner.

The “why” is therefore obvious, but Medical Affairs teams, and the MAPS attendees I spoke to, now want to see the “how”. I look forward to future MAPS sessions where we can share more real-world examples of successful omnichannel Medical Affairs programs.


[1] https://www.accenture.com/us-en/insights/life-sciences/new-rules-healthcare-provider-engagement

James Turnbull is Global Head of Omnichannel Communications at OPEN Health. James is a pioneer in applying digital and Omnichannel approaches to healthcare communications, creating personalized and effective campaigns.

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