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Four smart moves Life Science Leaders can take today to prepare for a post-COVID world

This article first appeared in Pharmaceutical Online

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged traditional working practices. Nearly overnight, the American workforce went from approximately 7 percent working from home to 49 percent. Pharmaceutical, biotech, and medical technology leaders have been impacted by COVID-19 in a variety of ways.

While some have seen a surge in demand (ventilators, PPE, intensive care products, and COVID-19 tests), others have seen delays (especially for drugs, devices, and equipment used in elective surgery). Companies experiencing delays are expecting a ramp up in Q3/Q4 this year. Many care settings are witnessing a significant shift in demand, from hospital to community to home care, wherever possible.

Whichever of these situations you find yourself in, and wherever you are in the world, you have most likely had a few months when your sales, medical, and other customer-facing teams have been off the road, at home, and connecting with customers virtually, if at all. While we don’t know how different the post-COVID world will be, we do know that pharma and medtech leaders are looking ahead and planning to work differently. And while face-to-face interaction is still the most effective in some situations, some version of virtual interaction is here to stay. Outlined below are four important steps that life science leaders need to make now to prepare for a post-COVID world.

1. Get Local

Build the capability to get and stay close to how patient care pathways are changing, where delays and blockages are, and deploy your resources based on that. If testing is the bottleneck in one region, send specialists to help labs increase capacity.  Focus sales on prescribers where your drug is on formulary.  If adherence rates are lower in one region, focus on patient support there.

Location drives significant variation at every step of the patient pathway. For example, in oncology: 

  • In England, diagnosis for breast cancer at stage 1 or 2 varied from 62 percent to 88 percent across clinical commissioning groups (CCGs).
  • In the U.S., similar breast cancer patients received very different treatments depending on which state they lived in.
  • The same was seen for end-of-life care in lung cancer, with 52 percent of patients in some U.S. states receiving chemotherapy within 30 days of death, compared with only 32 percent elsewhere.

Given data and technology advances, life science leaders can identify local variations in patient pathways and tailor their sales and marketing resources at a much more local level, ultimately optimizing the number of eligible patients who start and stay on therapy.

2. Get Digital

Enhance your customer engagement capabilities – to engage virtually and digitally. Given the current situation, this one is a no-brainer! Accelerate initiatives to build out systems, tools, processes, and people skills to engage with your customers in ways that work for them.

Some companies are scrambling to find ways to replace or supplement face-to-face interaction, while others are either starting or accelerating programs to engage with customers in a more holistic way. Whichever stage you are at, make sure to focus on the customer and their needs rather than expecting technology to solve everything or simply converting physical content to a digital channel.

One move is to upskill customer-facing roles to engage remotely. This include salespeople, medical science liaisons (MSLs), patient support, and local market access roles. These people all have skills in establishing rapport, building trust, and developing relationships in a face-to-face setting. Many of them will have known their customers for years, and they certainly know their customers’ roles in the local healthcare system, their needs, and their preferences. Creating or maintaining customer relationships remotely is different. Whether field-based personnel are digital natives or not, they can benefit from best-in-class training and coaching on effective remote customer engagement.

Another recommendation is to make it easier for customers to self-serve and find information on demand by having a rep-as-concierge for information or a customer care team to connect customers with the right expert.

3. Get Creative

Take this opportunity to redesign your customer-facing teams to align with how customers are thinking about their biggest challenges. Now is the best opportunity to think deeply about the purpose of your customer-facing teams and design roles you will need in the future.

First, do an internal scan. Is your product portfolio facing any significant shifts, e.g., from primary care to specialty care, from specialty to rare disease, or toward personalized medicine with significant diagnostic or cell and gene therapy components? What commercial roles might be needed that don’t exist today?

Second, look outward. What is changing most for your customers? Perhaps they need access to the most up-to-date information or to bite-size information that they can absorb quickly. Or perhaps they need expert help in identifying the right patients for a therapy or support to help patients adhere to chronic treatment.

As you think about your field-based teams, you could consider customer relationship managers rather than product specialists, or patient pathway experts rather than product-focused MSLs, or diagnostic specialists rather than therapeutic specialists, or maybe fully virtual teams. Similarly, consider how your other touchpoints with customers help them do their jobs better.

4. Get Connected

As providers and payers increasingly focus on outcomes-based care, it will increasingly be about “beyond the pill”: not just a drug but a drug plus a device plus an app plus a service – especially as the use of telehealth and remote monitoring increases to move care closer to home. Now is the time to improve agility in your decision-making and processes, across functions and with external partners, in order to deliver positive outcomes for patients.

We see innovation particularly in longer-term treatment:

  • In lifelong conditions such as diabetes, there is already a drug (insulin) plus device (pen injector, blood glucose monitor) plus very often an app (tracking glucose levels and insulin dosing). Innovation has resulted in increased connectivity of these components, so the healthcare professional can better monitor treatment and the patient can better manage their condition, e.g., through easier tracking of meals, exercise, and carbs and pattern recognition algorithms that can predict the risk of hypoglycemia.
  • In oncology, cancer care may be over years, not months, and is increasingly at home. Companies are innovating by reformulating drugs given by infusion (in hospital) so that they can be self-administered at home by patients using an auto-injector device. To ensure this is done safely, they are also developing connected devices to monitor drug dosing and apps to help the patient and caregiver recognize and manage side effects.

What are some no-regrets moves to get more connected? Set up multifunctional SWAT teams to work on some upcoming challenges and opportunities and have some “what if” conversations with potential partners. Where possible, show how connections contribute to broader societal outcomes and population health.

Even if we don’t know how different the post-COVID world will be, we can be confident that these four steps will help your company in the future. Take the time now to get local, understanding regional variations in care and focusing resources accordingly. Get digital by making virtual customer engagement easy and effective. Get creative in designing the customer-facing roles and teams you will need in the future. And get connected across internal functions and with external partners to deliver increasingly complex and personalized care and drive positive health outcomes.

Roz Lawson is a life sciences expert at PA Consulting

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  • Roz Lawson

    Roz Lawson

    PA life sciences expert

    Roz is focused on commercial strategy and operations, helping life sciences companies engage with their customers, launch new products, and drive portfolio growth.

    Insights by Roz Lawson

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