DTC Marketers job just got harder

SUMMARY: Both emergency room visits and doctors’ visits are down by about half because people are putting off treatment for medical emergencies due to fears of contracting COVID-19. How is pharma going to get patients back into to ask their doctor about branded medications?

Year-to-date spending on health services is down about 2% from last year. Health spending for the calendar year may end up lower than it was in 2019 but spending on prescription drugs has not fallen which could be due to price increases.

According to KFF.org “we do not know what share of the spending and utilization skipped or delayed because of COVID-19 was necessary or unnecessary. There was a decline in cancer screenings and visits to manage chronic care but we also do not know if health outcomes suffered. These data will trickle in as studies are published, and will be critical to determining how much we can safely reduce health spending in the future”.

Some doctors worry that illness and mortality from unaddressed health problems may rival the carnage produced in regions less affected by covid-19, the disease the virus causes. And some expect they will soon see patients who have dangerously delayed seeking care as ongoing symptoms force them to overcome their fear.

I decided to make some calls to physicians I know throughout the country to ask them if patients are skipping office visits, and the resounding answer was “yes.” While the sample is too small to make any immediate judgments it should be worrying to DTC marketers. How will they get patients to ask for an Rx if they’re not going to their doctor?

The first reaction might be to leverage the increased usage of telehealth. Still, HCP’s might not like the idea of patients asking for a new Rx during a telehealth visit until there is an acceptable reimbursement model.

Perhaps the best way is to partner with insurers and HCP’s to get patients back into physicians’ offices. All drug websites should contain warnings about putting off visits for health problems that could worsen. This is especially true for undiagnosed patients.

Is telehealth a scam?

Before COVID-19, the United States telehealth market was estimated at about $3 billion with 11% of consumers using telehealth in 2019. Fast forward to pandemic-plagued 2020, the telehealth market is poised to grow to $250 billion with 46% of consumers now using telehealth, according to McKinsey & Company. McKinsey also found that 76% of consumers are highly or moderately likely to use telehealth in the future and 74% of people who had used telehealth reported high satisfaction.

Unfortunately, these benefits are being offset by a variety of fraud schemes.

Federal agencies have charged 345 people across the country, including more than 100 providers and four telehealth executives, with submitting more than $6 billion in fraudulent claims to payers. Of that, $4.5 billion was connected to telemedicine schemes and about $800 million each to substance abuse treatment and illegal opioid distribution.

Though June 2020 played host to a 4,132% increase in telehealth services and procedures compared to the same time last year, overall use across the U.S. has dropped more than 20% since May.

Mental health issues usually dominate telehealth diagnoses, but every region of the U.S. saw an increase in May and June. More than 39% of telehealth diagnoses in May were related to mental health conditions, and that shot to almost 44% in June. FAIR highlighted the Northeast and Midwest in particular, as they saw the highest increases in mental health claims during those months.

Does this mean telehealth is doomed? Of course not but like any fast growing industry checks and balances need to be implemented and studies need to determine if patients are really being truthful during telehealth visits.

Getting patients to see their doctor is not going to be easy, but it can be successful with a consistent message that in-person healthcare is essential. Pharma should take the lead by including content and callouts on the importance of seeing a physician if you have a problem.