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As the COVID-19 pandemic rages, commercial and medical affairs leaders within life science companies face a dual agenda. They must rush diagnostic testing kits and other medical equipment to an overwhelmed healthcare system, while researching and conducting trials of therapies and vaccines. At the same time, they must prepare for post-pandemic social and health policy changes as well as for new ways of working internally — and with governments, health systems, payers and patients — to deliver better health outcomes worldwide.

In our work with life sciences companies that are battling the crisis, three recurring challenges emerge. Here are our recommendations for meeting them.

Caring for COVID-19 patients. Most companies have already formed a dedicated COVID response team to coordinate short-term responses and accelerate supply chains to deliver needed medication and medical equipment to patients and HCPs. In addition, as part of the response, medical affairs departments could form and lead a medical therapeutics task force with internal clinical experts, key opinion leaders and external agencies (notably the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization) to collaborate on clinical risk stratification and protocol for COVID-19 patients with pre-existing conditions. This would help HCPs — many of which may not be familiar with the patients or the complexities of COVID care — better plan and coordinate treatment for such patients.

Pharmaceutical companies could help this effort through open data initiatives, such as those already used to make data more widely available for medical research, by sharing their rich clinical trial data about the effectiveness of treatments for various diseases.

Pool your employees’ caring and passion with policies that make it easy for them to volunteer their time, effort or money to fight the pandemic.

Ensuring continuity of care for non-COVID patients. With social distancing and shelter-in-place guidance in major COVID-hit countries, companies should deploy digital technology such as videoconferencing and telehealth; establish guidelines and protocols for their use; and train field account teams, medical science liaisons and medical device representatives to assist patients and healthcare professionals remotely.

For example, medical device manufacturers can use field reps to remotely interrogate implanted devices, review their status and reports, and provide advice during surgery. These field reps can also track patients at home (with permission) to detect medical conditions such as arrhythmias and detect device issues such as depleted batteries and alert the patients’ care teams. Medical device companies should consider using virtual and augmented reality training to help doctors, nurses and other hospital staff operate and troubleshoot medical products and equipment without the need for on-site meetings.

COVID-related restrictions have halted face-to-face interactions between pharmaceutical manufacturers’ field forces and HCPs. To adapt, pharmaceutical leaders must be strategic in their digital outreach and rely on data science to prioritize, guide and enhance the value of their interactions with HCPs. For example, lab data and patient analytics can help identify the HCPs that are likely to see the most at-risk patients and their underlying conditions. Through this, life sciences companies can provide “white glove” service remotely to help HCPs understand the various segments of patient profiles they are likely to encounter and inform them of treatment options, financial support and disease management programs.

Medical affairs and patient services should scale their contact centers and other capabilities to cope with the increased volume of medical inquiries. Since the demand spike may only last as long as the pandemic, it is important to be able to reduce the size of these efforts when possible.

Digitally agile organizations should deploy self-help tools to patients and HCPs, such as chat and voice-enabled smartbots, to help in diagnosing symptoms, triaging, and making referrals to specialists through email and/or telehealth service for further treatment. This could help manage the patient overload throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

The pandemic has forced companies to re-think and in most cases postpone new product launches. When these launches resume, life sciences companies must balance empathy for the challenges patients and HCPs will face (even after the crisis) with the business need to maximize the impact of the launches. They will need to tailor everything from the timing of new product launches to communication strategies with HCPs to conditions in each geography, determining the right balance of physical and digital interaction.

Even with the move to remote virtual interactions with customers, the majority of the sales forces supporting existing products are underutilized due to COVID-19. This is an opportunity for commercial leaders to invest in training for the field force. This investment could include training on new products for upcoming launches; refresher training on customer management and selling skills; and technology and leadership training.

Companies with augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) tools for customers on their digital roadmap should accelerate those plans, deploying the technology internally first as a test. One appropriate use case is sales rep training and role-playing to hone selling skills.

One immediate challenge is sales forecasting and determining fair compensation for the field force during COVID-19 shutdowns. Different regions will begin emerging from lockdown at different times, with the timing of recoveries changing often. This makes it difficult to analyze the pandemic’s impact on sales forecasts. Companies should build regional analytical models that can be updated in near-real-time to understand the business impact of COVID-19 in each market and to help set quotas, commissions and bonuses.

Companies should also identify leaders within their field teams to form task forces serving as the “voice of the sales force.” These groups should collaborate with the home office commercial operations team to understand the impact of COVID-19 for each territory, region and customer, and to use data analytics to model scenarios for compensation plans and sales targets.

We are still in the learning phase. However, industry leaders must make sure they have an influential stake in healthcare reform after the pandemic. To do so, life sciences companies should appoint a well-networked senior leader who can influence and drive change internally and externally. This executive should form an advisory group that includes experts in healthcare public policy, providers, payers, digital disruptors and life sciences.

The group should identify the most likely regulatory changes; their possible impacts on business models, product development, manufacturing, marketing, contracting and distribution; and how to best prepare for them. These reforms could, for example, speed changes in:

  • Value-based care: How will life sciences companies forge closer alliances with payers and care providers to better coordinate care and track health outcomes?

  • Reference pricing: How will governments and health systems respond to demands to provide more consistent access to and pricing of drugs across their markets?

  • Rebates: Given that a large percentage of rebates currently do not reach patients, what changes should be made to how pharmacy benefit managers negotiate rebates with manufacturers, or if those rebates should even exist?

  • Telehealth: Will reimbursement for telehealth services expand beyond routine visits to include a larger set of health services across diagnoses, facilities and clinicians?

  • Open data initiatives and Interoperability: How should stakeholders collaborate and create the infrastructure to make clinical data available to a wider audience (while protecting their intellectual property) for a better understanding of patient health and treatment effectiveness?

  • Patient and public privacy: How will society, governments, health systems and patients create common frameworks and policies to balance individual patient privacy with the need to share data to improve overall public health?


As life science leaders step up to the COVID-19 crisis, they must accelerate their digital agenda to not only meet the immediate needs of HCPs and patients, but to prepare for the changes that will result from it. Investments made now in areas such as telehealth, data and machine learning will deliver rich rewards in patient health and business competitiveness.

This article was written by Vyom Bhuta, Industry Solutions Group Lead within Cognizant’s Life Sciences, Commercial Practice.

For more information, visit the Life Sciences section of our website or contact us. Visit our COVID-19 resources page for additional insights and updates.