The doctor will Zoom you now: Pharma execs talk ins and outs of telehealth

Telehealth is surging during the pandemic. And with estimates pegging telehealth growth at as much as 80% in 2020, it’s not an area pharma can afford to ignore.

Ironwood Pharmaceuticals and Evofem Biosciences aren't. Each company has used telehealth to engage with patients and ease their path to prescriptions. During a panel discussion at Fierce Pharma Marketing's Digital Pharma Innovation Week, their top commercial execs offered some ideas for other pharma companies looking for a place in the booming practice.

In the case of Ironwood, its telehealth practice with irritable bowel syndrome med Linzess began last fall as a way to help increase both access and delivery of care, Chief Commercial Officer Mark Plinio said.

Three key benefits have emerged—the ability for patients to talk about symptoms that may come and go while they're happening; privacy to discuss what can be a sensitive issue, in this case constipation; and convenience for both patients and doctors, Plinio said.

While Ironwood's telehealth practice was ramping up before the pandemic, prescriptions took off during it. At the height of the COVID-19 lockdowns this spring, Ironwood—which co-markets Linzess with AbbVie—saw upward of 50% of new scripts coming through telehealth. Even though that has subsided, telehealth still accounts for 20% to 30% of new prescriptions, Plinio said. And he expects that to continue.

RELATED: Ironwood, AbbVie add 'bloating' and 'discomfort' to Linzess label to reach more IBS-C patients

For Evofem, telehealth was part and parcel of its first-ever product launch during the pandemic, CCO Russ Barrans said.

Indeed, non-hormonal contraceptive gel Phexxi had telehealth built into its debut last month. Evofem created a “concierge experience” in which women can go online and bypass their regular physicians. Through partner Populus, women can take a short survey and, if qualified, get a prescription with home delivery or pharmacy pick-up.

Evofem estimated a 22% conversion rate, and although it's still early days, currently has a 48% conversion rate, Barrans said.

While both Ironwood and Evofem have seen initial telehealth successes, the CCOs see even bigger opportunities for pharma in the space.

“It’s an opportunity for us is to move away from a transactional approach for broader pharma,” Plinio said, adding, “Telehealth, if done the right way, provides an opportunity to enhance the overall experience with the brand, leading to higher patient satisfaction and utilization.”

RELATED: Evofem takes playful approach, taps influencers for launch of Phexxi birth control

Barrans agreed and added that marketing, specifically targeted marketing, can make the difference between success or failure in telehealth.

Evofem used a partner company to identify women on Facebook who were likely to be interested in Phexxi and offered those women a consultation with a nurse. The anticipation was about 200 women per month would respond. In the first month, more than 1,000 did.

“The old days of spending $50 million in advertising on TV are gone,” Barrans said, adding, "To me, the critical point around whether other therapeutic areas will be able to leverage this as well is [that] you can’t do a general approach. You really have to find where is your audience, how do I speak to them and how do I drive them to action?”

Editor's note: To watch all the on-demand sessions from DPI Week, qualified attendees can register for free: