The State of Digital Excellence In The Global Pharmaceutical Industry, 2021: Medical Operations

Executive Summary

Medical affairs (MA) organizations increasingly define the experiences healthcare professionals (HCPs) have with pharmaceutical firms. With the rise of digital technologies, MA teams have to change how they think about and execute medical education, seek scientific advice, and engage with communities to discuss scientific advances and medical progress. Experiences will remain personal, relevant, and trustworthy, but pharma firms must understand where and how they interact with HCPs and interpret it from a multichannel perspective—a one-size-fits-all approach to designing interactions and journeys won’t cut it. To deliver seamless experiences that match the preferences of pharma’s scientific stakeholders, MA teams need technical capabilities, a strong vision and plan, key organizational building blocks, and sensitivity to organizational change dynamics in their pursuit of digital maturity.

Industry Trends Expand Pharma Medical Affairs’ Focus

Originally dedicated to supporting commercial operations by reviewing and approving scientific and medical information and providing it to HCPs, the role of medical affairs has changed substantially in the past ten years to take a more pivotal and strategic role within pharma firms. Three core trends continue to drive this shift: 

  • Rising demand for information. As scientific and technological advances in drug development increasingly become patient-specific, the provision of product- and disease-related information becomes more complex and nuanced. The amount of data from clinical trials of small molecules and large therapeutics such as biologics is increasing, as is the amount of information coming from data sources like personalized medicine and genomic information. As a result, educating scientific stakeholders requires the integration of more knowledge from fields including molecular biology, biochemistry, and immunotherapy to focus on getting the right treatment to the right patient.
  • An expanding customer base. MA departments are also finding it more complex to package information for a new range of pharma customers that is no longer comprised only of doctors but includes patients, caregivers, providers, payers, policymakers, professional societies, and other stakeholders. Overall MA engagement grew by 11% between 2017 and 2021. This new balance between commercial and scientific dialogues is driven by customers’ need for more information about complex scientific matters to support clinical decision-making as well as the need for a more collaborative environment for scientific discussions.
  • Significant advances in technology and data. Unprecedented advances in digital and internet technologies mean that 70% of HCPs consistently use online resources and applications to support decision-making for patients and keep up with developments in science and their profession.1 Real-world data (RWD) and electronic health records are growing at unprecedented rates. Genomic testing for screening, diagnosis, and drug therapy selection will generate two to forty exabytes of data by 2025.2 Computing power, AI and machine learning, incremental improvements in CRM, customer experience (CX) planning tools, analytics software, and mobile technology have already improved how pharma firms interact with the scientific community. Initiatives such as UK Biobank, which captures health data from more than 500,000 individuals, show how the future of medical affairs is one powered by digital tech and data.3

Digital Advancements Is A Key Factor Of Change To Medical Affairs Functions

While the key strategic functions of medical affairs remain unchanged, we believe that four of them will be affected most by advanced digital technology:

  • Peer-to-peer scientific dialogue. One-to-one conversations with HCPs no longer need to happen in person. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, MA was using online meeting technologies to update key opinion leaders (KOLs) and specialists on the research pipeline and products. In larger digital settings like webinars and virtual congresses, firms have demonstrated that they can attract relevant audiences; organize stimulating, provocative discussions in breakout rooms; and tactically engage large virtual audiences. New communication options are shifting customer preferences, which change the way companies align with them. Firms that fail to exploit the ability to ingest and store HCP interaction data or lack the maturity to use this data to plan scientific dialogue will limit their ability to deliver great CX. But done right, it helps companies achieve their goals for scientific information distribution and puts them in position to collect valuable information about customers and their behaviors and needs.
  • Disseminating medical and scientific evidence. Company-owned websites, personalized emails, and society, professional, or peer-reviewed journal platforms help MA teams maximize customer access to key medical evidence. But the proliferation of channels means that companies might lose track of content viewership and individual customer needs. Firms that lack proper measurement and tracking by tools like customer data platforms, CRM, and digital asset management run the risk of irrelevant customer engagement, which may give them a reputation as unprofessional or detached from HCPs. In contrast, the ability to accurately disseminate and track information enables firms to personalize content experiences, ensure consistent messaging, and review the progress of individual customers in understanding and interpreting data. Advanced analytics and AI technology can help to predict imminent customer needs, enabling teams to disseminate information faster and deliver even better experiences.
  • Educating HCPs and decision-makers such as payers and providers. MA teams promote and organize educational programs for customers, including symposia and ad-hoc medical and clinical educational programs to increase stakeholders’ knowledge of specific disease areas, patients, and therapeutics to improve outcomes. Virtual classrooms and interactive online modules are just two examples of how MA teams can broaden their education and training tool kit. Individual customer preferences regarding content and channel will ultimately drive the objective of boosting new knowledge acquisition by stakeholders. Apply digital technologies correctly to achieve a blended education program with the potential to create individual learning paths, augment the educational experience, and reach new audiences.
  • Generating insights and aligning with internal departments. The new level of scientific insights and real-time access to stakeholder input make MA teams a vital partner in steering customer strategies, influencing R&D decisions, and aligning with the brand plan.4 Digital technologies can improve clinical trial participant support, enhance pipeline portfolio management, and fast-track how content like conference highlights is shared with front-line commercial and medical staff. In terms of interdepartmental alignment, MA is best placed to define and execute such strategy, as it can triage the requirements from a patient care and health system perspective most objectively.

Medical Affairs’ New Scope Drives the Need for Digital Capabilities

To respond to industry trends and truly fulfill its expanded role, MA must operationalize digital technologies and bring new capabilities to the organization. Our research indicates that digital capabilities that support customer relationships ensure that customer engagement planning and execution practices adjust to a hybrid or blended approach, inform what MA staff needs to know and do, and align internal stakeholders’ roles and responsibilities.5 MA should focus on twelve key capabilities: six are on-stage and HCP-facing; six are behind-the-scenes (see Figure 1). We have also calculated the digital maturity scores related to these capabilities (see Figure 2).

Figure 1: An overview of key digital capabilities for medical affairs
Figure 2: Digital maturity excellence scores for medical affairs capabilities

On-Stage, HCP-Facing Digital Capabilities: Where Customer Engagement Happens

HCP-facing capabilities essentially create the interface between customer and company. The better firms design and build these “channels”, the better the HCP experience. Successful experiences are human- centric: people find them simple to have, get information or a service relevant to their need, and feel a sense of trust throughout.6 Interactions from one channel to another need to be easy and respond to customer preferences. On-stage capabilities include:

  • Field medical remote interactions. One-to-one engagements and small meetings between MA and one or more external scientific stakeholders through virtual platforms.
  • Field medical interactive electronic tools. Digital materials used in a face-to face or virtual meeting by MA team members where customer input informs presentation materials or sequence.
  • Mobile apps. Software applications developed for use on smartphones and tablets.
  • Websites. MA-specific web pages, as information or online services, owned by your company.
  • Contact center. An online space that HCPs can use to interact with your company and discover additional information through live interactions.
  • Virtual events. Tools for large group discussions and virtual congresses

Behind-The-Scenes Digital Capabilities: How Customer Engagement Is Orchestrated

Behind-the-scenes capabilities are technologies, processes, and people skills that help MA teams better plan and execute digital customer engagement, mostly by using the power of data for channel and content optimization. Behind-the-scenes capabilities include:

  • Multichannel strategy. A plan for multichannel medical customer engagement with a set of tactics aligned with medical communication objectives, channel determination, user experience design, and content selection and development.
  • Content creation. Developing and managing relevant informational materials to engage customers and communicate key concepts/outcomes.
  • Customer engagement management (CRM) tools. Systems for managing a firm’s interactions with current and future customers. The technology allows for the organization, automation, and tracking an array of medical, customer service, and technical support communications.
  • Customer engagement analytics. Analyzing and understanding data from HCP interactions to identify challenges or opportunities for improvement or inform strategy. Teams use analytics software to track customer behavior as an input into customer engagement measurement and keep working in the background on content taxonomies and data integration to extract even more insights from customers and their activities for overall impact assessment.
  • MLR review. Ensuring that all assets undergo medical, legal, and regulatory (MLR) or nominated signatory (nom sig) review.
  • Touchpoint integration. Ensuring that customers have continuity in their interactions with the company. Continuity means that customers can switch touchpoints (e.g., from medical information to a medical science liaison (MSL) written response), jump between channels without losing context, or carry out next steps immediately or later to complete a task without interruption.

Medical Affairs Digital Excellence Unlocks Benefits for Pharma

A recent study by the Medical Affairs Digital Strategy Council that applied our Digital Excellence Maturity Assessment methodology, which is based on these twelve key digital capabilities, shows that some of the fifteen Tier 1 pharma companies that have embarked on their digital transformation journey are already showing good progress (see Figure 3). Firms that reach digital maturity (see Figure 4):

  • Take pharma CX to a new level. Once MA teams have the capabilities to plan and hold virtual meetings including eSymposia and digital advisory boards, complete speaker training online, or have one-to-one conversations with KOLs, specialists, or reps of professional associations, they have to adapt their customer engagement model. A hybrid model where digital, virtual, and face-to-face interactions coexist ensures that firms meet customer preferences and drive satisfaction and gives them growing and changing portfolios that enable them to have scientific exchanges with new or broader audiences. This will not only improve how companies educate stakeholders on the safe and effective use of products, but also remove the capacity constraints of the personal engagement model, which is based on how much time field-based MSLs and regional medical advisors have available. Finally, a hybrid customer engagement model with fully integrated behind-the-scenes technologies and capabilities will enable organizations to focus on CX and direct resources to content and channels that engage customers.
  • Contribute to value-based patient-centric care. By touching a wider audience, MA enables a mechanism outside of formal research to identify opportunities or risks to the optimal use of a product at a very early stage. As healthcare systems move to population health management and value-based care models linking payments to patient outcomes, drug performance, and value delivery, MA’s contribution will be crucial in disseminating all available data. MA digital technologies like RWD/RWE-based analytics platforms will not only boost the accuracy of information on drug performance and identify the most suitable patient segment, but also help to optimize drug pricing strategies and claims submission processes. Virtual channels will greatly enhance the large-scale dissemination of data and successful case studies to highlight global and regional challenges and promote collaboration to overcome challenges, ultimately fostering a company’s reputation.
  • Realize the potential of next-gen therapies. A sharp increase in regulatory approvals of next- generation treatments such as CAR-T cell therapy and advanced gene therapies is no guarantee that these treatments will find the right patients. Engagement with HCPs and relevant stakeholders at payers and providers will be essential to reaching patients suitable for treatment at scale and on time. MSLs employing multichannel medical strategies with digital capabilities such as CRM, virtual events, and remote interactions will find and meaningfully engage KOLs and HCPs faster, speeding the dissemination of medical evidence and identification of new patients. Technology will sustain the deployment of efficient business models by quickly providing accurate information on safety and efficacy and streamlining manufacturing and delivery processes, ultimately optimizing the benefits of therapies.
  • Enable a data-driven organizational strategy. While the modern MA organization is already cross-functional—aligning disciplines in the biopharma value chain, including clinical research and commercial organizations—digital transformation will enable more meaningful collaboration. Digital capabilities and the data they generate will quickly lead to an understanding of industry needs and required organizational changes including efficient pipeline prioritization, acquisition strategies, and pricing models. With a seat at the table, MA will also take a more prominent role in steering pharma firms’ vision, objectives, and strategy.
Figure 3: Digital maturity excellence scores by companies’ medical affairs operations
Figure 4: Key internal and external benefits of medical affairs digital transformation

How to Plan for Digital Excellence

While most medical affairs organizations increase their digital maturity via discrete activities spread across a region, some take a more disciplined approach, looking at it from the perspective of an operating model and longer-term roadmap. Two-thirds of pharma firms currently have such plans, even though about half are satisfied with their progress.7 Roadmaps fail if they don’t put people at the center of the transformation —not recognizing that organizations, like humans, adopt change in different ways. Change is often initially received with denial, fear, even anger—but good management can reorient these strong feelings to positive emotions like acceptance or excitement. Once people accept and feel positive about digital capabilities for MA, the organization will start to embrace it and adopt new skills, embed new processes, or use technology to execute intelligently. We recommend orchestrating the path to digital maturity for MA in four stages:

  • Assess: Bring the “why” to life to gain acceptance. First analyze the opportunity and craft a vision and story to bring it to life. Then get the support of local MA leaders, as most digital transformation comes to life at the customer level. Anticipate that few people on MA teams know the true meaning or potential of “digital” or “multichannel”—let alone can immerse themselves in a digital MA practice where a hybrid customer engagement model is stronger than separate field and communications strategies. This lack of understanding keeps local MA directors from making decisions and team members from changing how they work. One firm bolstered its communication plan by working with an agency to develop a series of short videos to tell the digital transformation story. Another tightened up the digital transformation narrative by developing personas and CX scenarios based on market research to illustrate the anticipated change in a cohesive manner.
  • Launch: Foster understanding to gain commitment. Once MA teams understand the what and why of digital transformation, ensure that they are aligned and actively participate in the next stage, in which MA and its most important stakeholders craft a strategic plan and a roadmap. The plan adds detail around the objectives, expected results, timelines, and organization; the roadmap shows what affiliates must do to change people’s responsibilities, company processes, and technology use. One firm started from the desired CX and worked backwards to understand the operating model behind it; another defined a strategic framework to measure the effectiveness of its new customer engagement model. An accurate evaluation of today’s tech stack, adoption by MA teams, and digital technology availability and adoption are vital inputs into the capability roadmap and plan.
  • Accelerate: Encourage change behavior to onboard others. Enabling digital capabilities and integrating a new operating model into MA teams’ daily work to drive digital excellence is a crucial challenge; it’s increasingly clear that firms must give people the tools, time, and support to adopt new capabilities. It’s great to have a vision, strategy, and plan, but without skilled talent and support infrastructure, early enthusiasm will quickly curdle into frustration. Finally, governance—making clear who owns and is accountable for what piece of the change—keeps the pace of change steady.
  • Optimize: Fine-tune transformation artifacts and keep up the pace. MA teams now have a hybrid customer engagement model, an operating model for working with execution partners, a strategic measurement framework, and a tech rollout plan (see Figure 5). As the first affiliates adopt these, cracks may appear or performance results may indicate difficulties in reaching their goals. This is normal, but don’t ignore it; that will add frustration and may breed resistance that the digital service center must cope with. The solution lies in good people management: additional training on the customer engagement model, feedback loops to fine-tune the operating model, and additional support on tech implementation and adoption. An annual check against a digital maturity model can surface wider issues and show how well the organization is progressing—the fuel that keeps people pushing towards a more impactful role for digital in MA. Defining quick, tangible wins to show progress to the larger organization will also help to build momentum.
Figure 5: The three key building blocks behind medical affairs’ digital excellence transformations


Francesca Properzi crc

Francesca Properzi


Francesca has more than ten years of experience in life science and healthcare research projects, including frontline scientific research, digital transformation, and innovative technologies. In her current role as director of research, she is steering the DT thought leadership team to generate valuable insights into customer experiences, specifically in the clinical and medical affairs areas of the biopharmaceutical value chain.

Tim van Tongeren

Managing Partner

Tim has worked for more than fifteen years with commercial leaders to navigate their strategic and organizational transformations required to thrive on digital technology change. In his current role as Managing Partner, he leads DT’s Solutions and Consulting offerings to advise the world’s largest pharmaceutical firms on how to best achieve customer experience success through digital transformation.
Tim van Tongeren crc

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