Lessons from China: Agency execs discuss impact of COVID-19 pandemic lockdown and its aftermath on pharma

The COVID-19 pandemic placed China in the spotlight, not only because it had the first cases of the disease but because it had some of the earliest reopenings. It’s an unenviable position, but one that can give insight into the impact on the pharma industry across issues such as digital engagement, healthcare access and communications.

WPP Health's Claire Gillis, international CEO, and Yi Han, executive vice president of WG Market Access, have had front-row seats to COVID-19 in China. Gillis travels frequently to China for WPP, while Han splits his time between Shanghai and the U.S. Both worked throughout the pandemic with pharma clients and agency teams in China, and more recently have tackled reopening issues.

The two spoke to Fierce Pharma about what they’ve learned and how the pharma industry will permanently change—and in some ways already has—because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both agreed the most immediate and lasting impact is the shift to digital engagement across the industry, from pharma sales reps to healthcare appointments to patient communications.

“When the pandemic first broke, the pharma industry in China reacted very quickly. Companies transitioned to ‘digital’ operating models almost immediately. This undoubtedly helped in terms of problem solving as the pandemic evolved,” Gillis said.

Pharma field teams moved quickly to engage digitally with physicians. Data and technology were deployed more quickly and more creatively, for instance in the switch from B2B to B2B2C communication and service delivery models “virtually overnight,” she said. Often risk-averse pharma and healthcare companies suddenly became innovators and began to act and react more like established online platforms, similar to those in banking and e-commerce.

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Virtual medical conferences also became the norm in China and, eventually, worldwide. That’s one area Han said he is hopeful changes will stick—not only for the convenience, but also for the broader range of people, including patients and consumers, who now attend open virtual meetings.

He noted as an example some well-received and widely attended educational forums he worked on in China held by AstraZeneca, Sanofi and others who worked together to create content about trends in the pandemic, latest science news and what could and should be done going forward.

Another major digital shift in China has been in patient access, which Gillis pointed out has long been a major issue for China’s huge population. Effective self-management of health became even more important during the crisis and has resulted in more accessible care, most significantly through WeChat, she said.

Now that some of the lockdown restrictions are easing, several changes do seem to be sticking in the aftermath. Digital brand-building, for instance, is one trend Gillis said seems poised to become more permanent.

“Clients are conscious that their messages must be kept front of mind with customers in an environment characterized by speed, change and uncertainty. Over the past two months, our Sudler teams in China have been working with many of our clients, hosting workshops and strategic meetings to help leverage this new digital mindset to fuel long-term business growth,” she said.

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Another lasting effect is the impact COVID-19 has had on the average person’s perception of disease and helping to foster a new sense of empathy. As Han said, many people suddenly had a firsthand understanding of what it feels like to be threatened by an orphan disease with no treatment and no cure.

“Hopefully even after this pandemic passes, people will continue to realize how important medical innovation is for these people,” he said.

That idea ties in with the often discussed topic of the potential for a lasting positive impact on the pharma industry's reputation. Gillis and Han pointed to the even broader potential, beyond feel-good sentiment about the industry, to reframe the discussion around the value of drugs. Instead of the same old pricing discussions, consumers who now have a better understanding of the time, effort and expense of finding treatments and vaccines may be more understanding of those values.

Specific changes in China, Gillis said, have been the advance of e-commerce through COVID-19 as “the new frontier for healthcare.” She pointed to examples such as online vaccine appointments being distributed through Alibaba and a family doctor product from Jingdong (JD.com) to meet the need across stakeholders for 24/7 health management.

“COVID-19 was not the catalyst for change that the world wanted or needed. But one thing’s for sure: Healthcare in China will never go back,” Gillis said.