Digital Strategy

Oncology, Diabetes, Stroke & COVID-19: What does it mean for the pharma marketer?

Written by
Mikkel Arnoldi
Oncology, Diabetes, Stroke & COVID-19: What does it mean for the pharma marketer?

Doctors and PAGs are stressing the need to not lose sight of maintaining treatment of patients with other diseases – such as cancer, diabetes, stroke, COPD, asthma - during the COVID-19 pandemic*.  

But what are the feelings, concerns, needs, opinions and attitudes of such specially exposed patient groups amidst the global health crisis? To understand this, we choose to take the temperature of the digital space focusing on cancer patients and HCPs fuelled by studies related to COVID-19 in cancer patients. ** & ***

We looked at their digital behavior, analyzing social media conversations and information search behavior to identify the specific questions, worries, concerns and information needs which emerge during the Corona crisis.

Pharmaceutical companies find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place, with the dilemma of continuing to provide education, medical/product information, and patient educational materials – or putting communication and marketing activities on hold while the world focuses on COVID-19.

On the one hand, people with diabetes, cancer, COPD, stroke,etc, still need treatment, education, support and care, etc. And HCPs still need to understand relevant treatment options for their patients, product information, provide patient support and education. To this point, 63,7% of HCPs are interested in participating in online events as they conclude that the break out should not affect communication and cross learning.****
On the other hand, there is the risk of being perceived as inappropriately commercial or even taking the advantage of the situation as specific patient group are particularly exposed during these difficult times.

We will get back to this later. If you are planning to act, here is the Pharmaceutical Marketer's To-DO List for the Short, Mid and Long Term.

First let us look at the impact COVID-19 has on cancer patients and HCPs, how it impacts them practically and emotionally.

How is COVID-19 impacting the lives of cancer patients and oncologists?

Worried, confined to their homes, people turn to social media and search engines to make sense of it all and seek advice and education on how to deal with such a serious health situation. We therefore took a quick look at social media conversations discussing cancer and COVID-19 to understand those concerns and information needs cancer patients have.

The first observation was a dramatic increase in conversations over just a few weeks (not surprisingly) dominated by negative sentiment. Second, we discovered a series of themes that are worrisome and concerning to patients, about which they search for solutions to, and about which they discuss online in blogs and in social media

General Health concerns were the biggest issue, which is not surprising considering patients with cancer seems to have worse outcomes from COVID-19***. Patients are worried about the increased risk due to their pre-existing condition and try to understand how to protect themselves.

Also, patients seem to be very concerned about practical and health issues related to the logistics around their appointments and within the hospital. This includes getting to the hospital, infection risk at hospitals, public transportation, driving with  family/friends, virtual appointments and more.


Finally, the data suggests that many patients are concerned about the social isolation and loneliness due to recommendations about not visiting people with increased health risks, government regulations on travelling and limitations on crowd sizes, etc.  

3 different approaches to COVID-19?

Speaking with pharma marketers across therapeutic areas, there seems to be 3 ways to approach it:

Option 1 - "hijacking"

Some will see it as an opportunity and push hard. These ones are actively hijacking the COVID-19 agenda as a hot topic, as an opportunity to reach and engage patients and HCPs and direct them down the marketing funnel towards marketing messages. It is unlikely a successful strategy for building close and long-term relationships, nor will it be an appropriate and ethical way to act in a state of crisis.

Option 2 - "paralysis"

Others are “paralyzed” due to uncertainty about how to behave. This puts existing and new marketing initiatives on hold. This is typically done out of fear of customers’ reaction and a perceived need to give them space and not bother them in times of turbulence and crisis. Looking at the search and social media results as well as below combined , it does not seem like patients and HCPs wish to be left alone though. It suggests that there is a significant need for information and support related to living with a serious or chronic disease during a COVID-19 pandemic, and that HCPs still need to treat patients but increasingly need to do it differently, most obviously via remote/digitally enabled ways.

Option 3 - "support"

The majority we have spoken to, however, acknowledge there is need for information right now and that pharma has an obligation –and opportunity - to make this information available, and be seen as a valuable partner to patients and HCPs. This is done by providing both the latest and legacy information related to disease, treatment and support, but also information, tools and services related to treating cancer in times of COVID-19.

Potential marketing activities to carry out during COVID-19

To summarize, we would suggest to consider the following:

  • Doctors will not see sales reps and attend events. How can we repurpose existing materials and offer these on an on-demand basis with the digital channels e.g. as a self directed detailer
  • Step up on your email marketing transitioning from "email blasts" to personalized email programs aligned with the HCP decision journey. Read more
  • HCPs are reporting on anxious patients in the midst of the crisis. Patient Support materials are highly valued by HCPs. Support HCPs by delivering these materials digitally in order to assist him in his work,when more patient interactions will be digital/remote.
  • Have a POV on your disease area and COVID-19. To this end, use digital observational insights (Digital IQ) to understand patient unmet information need related to a specific disease area and COVID-19. Potentially collaborate with or donate support materials to patient organizations. This will underline your organization is up to speed with the current situation.
  • Create an updated section on your HCP website, IVA,E-mail etc. where you address any impact on products, guidelines, safety etc.
  • Rethink your webinar to transcend the usual format of a KOL presenting with QA at the end to a true digital collaboration e.g. via tools such as Mural or Vertic's digital workshop tool
  • Park past notions of relative channel effectiveness, and focus on building customer flows which leverage all channels across the HCP decision journey
  • Leverage the unfortunate circumstances of the pandemic as a unique opportunity to build your team's digital muscle allowing you to extend world class convenience and customer experience via the digital channels  

The digital observational insights in this article is a sample and snapshot, but a Digital IQ analysis clearly outline the content and information needs as well as preferred channels through which pharma marketers could reach and engage patients and HCPs. More about Digital IQ here

*) Politiken, "Corona presser andre patienter ud..."

**) The risk of COVID-19 for patient with cancer

***) How Is Oncology Adapting to COVID-19?

****) M3, Field Analysis Corona, 2020


Written by

Mikkel Arnoldi

Head Healthcare

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