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Article: COVID-19: Accelerating digitalisation in emerging markets

An-hwa Lee, July 2020

As Coronavirus continues to spread across the globe, Rachel Howard explores what pharma is doing to advance research into the virus, considering lessons learned from previous public health emergencies of international concern.

COVID-19 Accelerating digitalisation in emerging markets

Advances in digital technology have already changed how we do business, interact, and communicate. In market research, we have embraced these new channels and communication trends to develop new, innovative methods. Even in emerging markets, where respondents traditionally favour face-to-face interviews, digital methods are being adopted successfully.

However, the global Covid-19 (coronavirus) outbreak has forced us all, in a matter of weeks, to quickly adapt how we live and work. Thanks to technology, we are discovering that video calls and virtual meetings can be just as effective as in-person ones. We use social media to receive information and stay connected, and we are participating in virtual group activities such as singing in a choir, book clubs or yoga to stay physically and mentally healthy. An unexpected positive side effect of the pandemic is that we are helping the environment by significantly reducing unnecessary travel.

In healthcare marketing, the digital trend continues. Currently, 13.8% of overall pharma investments are in digital multichannel marketing. A survey among over 100 pharma and bioscience companies conducted by the Pharma Marketer in 2019 indicated that, by 2022, one-third of pharma companies would spend over 50% of their marketing budget on digital channels.

mHealth is still on the rise, especially in emerging markets, where mobile phone penetration is high, and patients are seeking greater control over their health. Telemedicine facilitates communication between patients and healthcare professionals, allowing remote diagnosis, monitoring and treatment maintenance. Popular apps include Doctor2U in Malaysia and Ping An Good Doctor in China (which reported a year-on-year increase of 52% in 2019). We believe the worldwide impact of COVID-19 will accelerate the adoption of digital tools and channels across many sectors, including healthcare and market research. Here, we look at some of the ways the pandemic is changing marketing in emerging markets.

Mobile channels communication
Given the widespread mobile connectivity in emerging markets, using mobile communication apps is an obvious option. WhatsApp is used by millions of people worldwide, and is especially popular in India, Latin America, parts of Asia and the US. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has entered into a partnership with WhatsApp to launch a coronavirus information hub to provide allow factual information to be distributed in emerging markets such as Brazil, Indonesia and Singapore, demonstrating the importance of this platform as a communication channel.

Research Partnership recognised the widespread use of both WhatsApp in Latin America and WeChat in China and decided to explore the possibilities of utilising these platforms to capture real-time, exploratory, and multi-media enriched feedback. For our ‘WhatsApp in LatAm study, we recruited 10 migraine patients. Respondents were unanimously positive about taking part, with one respondent providing feedback that, “I really liked the dynamics. I felt it was more fluid and personal… it was possible to do it at any time of the day.”

For our ‘WeChat in China’ study, we recruited 10 HIV patients. This condition has a considerable level of stigma in China, but again, respondents were extremely positive about taking part and shared images, voice notes and videos via WeChat, which resulted in richer insights. Mobile methodologies are equally wellsuited to collecting physician feedback. For example, our technique RxRationale uses mobile app technology to capture rich, qualitative information at the point of prescription, when the physician has just seen a patient and has made a decision about the best course of treatment. Physicians use the audio recording feature of their phones to give us detailed and thorough reasons for their prescribing decision-making, providing in-depth qualitative insight.

Embracing digital technology amid COVID-19
We believe the worldwide impact of COVID-19 will accelerate the adoption of digital tools and channels across many sectors, including healthcare and market researchThe coronavirus crisis has triggered an accelerated uptake of remote communication technology. The social distancing measures, or ‘circuit breaking’ as referred to in Singapore, introduced by governments to slow down the spread of the virus, have forced us to solely focus on digital methodologies as an alternative to face-to-face interaction. In market research, we have seen an increase in the use of virtual interviews, group discussions and entire central location days and found them an efficient way of reaching a broader target group, reducing costs and being more time-efficient and agile, proving that digital research can be successful in any world market.

The pandemic is also giving telemedicine the necessary push to be more widely accepted and used. A survey conducted in March 2020 by a global online panellist showed that physicians in Japan and China (but also in Europe and the US) have seen a rise in telehealth to manage their patients with many expecting the technology to stay once the pandemic has subsided. For example, in South Korea, regulations and concerns from the medical community have until now been a considerable barrier to the implementation of telemedicine services and products. But in light of the coronavirus crisis, Korea has slightly shifted its position, with the Seoul National University Hospital offering telemedicine services to coronavirus patients to allow them to monitor their symptoms and to enable remote diagnosis and prescription, which in turn might convince the Korean Medical Association and The Ministry of Health and Welfare to reconsider their position and see the value of telemedicine, especially when there is no alternative.

Pharma has long equated sales of drugs with the number of reps out in the field. Covid-19 will severely disrupt this marketing model, and drive pharma to invest more in multichannel/digital marketing solutions. Companies and individuals who ignore social distancing rules run the risk of public censure – as shown when the manager of a Brazilian pharmaceutical company tried to pressure the sales force to continue organising face-to-face meetings. The story was leaked and caused a major PR crisis for the company, forcing them to clarify their stance.

As more digital communication tools and channels are explored, the need to test their effectiveness will increase. We market researchers need to broaden our capabilities so that we not only understand stakeholder needs, drivers and barriers to use, but also the actual usability and user experience (UX) of these technologies. This will help marketers design and develop tools which meet customers’ needs fully and functionally.

Finally, we could also see a rise in Digital Opinion Leaders (DOL) who exert their influence through social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or TikTok. HCPs and patients/consumers alike utilise the digital channels to publish, share and exchange knowledge which in turn we as market researchers and our pharma clients should monitor closely, either through social media listening or including these DOLs in our research.

Once our lives return to normal, we don’t expect face-to-face interviews to be replaced entirely by digital methods. In some emerging markets where cultural influence is strong, such as Japan, we think there will be a return to traditional methods. There are also research objectives or therapy areas that require strong rapport or interaction where face-to-face is more favourable. However, we envisage that the virtual way of conducting research will become more established across emerging markets, as we embrace more agile methodologies and come to appreciate that face-to-face communication is not the only or ultimate way of extracting deeper insights.

We predict that the pharmaceutical industry will continue to evolve, expanding the depth and breadth of their use of digital methods in their marketing strategy, and also in market research. The growth will perhaps be greatest across emerging markets, which will continue to develop innovative approaches to reach target.

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