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The Journey Towards Digital Natives In Pharma

We are increasingly realising that the exposure of children and young people to technology is strongly affecting the way in which society develops.
June 11, 2021

We are increasingly realising that the exposure of children and young people to technology is strongly affecting the way in which society develops. Individuals, who do not find the complexity of the digital era and constant updates in the field of technology problematic, are generally referred to as ‘Digital Natives. This notion was introduced by Marc Prensky when he defined the gap in the way these two generations deal with computers and the Internet.

The Problem 

Despite this demographic roadmap, many Pharma companies persist with increasingly outdated models of communication. With its customers heading in one direction, pharma’s reliance on traditional marketing means many are driving the wrong way down a one-way street. If Pharma is to continue to improve care through effective delivery of relevant information, it needs to understand which way traffic is actually going.

The rise of the digital native has, understandably, hogged the headlines, presenting Pharma with a burgeoning group of younger, digital-savvy customers. With two-thirds of the HCP population being digital natives, it’s vital that the industry understands what this key demographic values. However, away from the spotlight, another discrete trend with major implications for HCP communications has been quietly bubbling: the advance of the ‘independents’ and the decline of the ‘relationship-seekers’.

Customer segmentation is all-important for pharma, but in a digital world, this should extend beyond the traditional value-based segmentation to capture channel affinity and maximize customer engagement. Age-based segmentation (digital native vs immigrants) already goes a long way, but there are other segmentation models which can further refine the go-to-market model. McKinsey’s life sciences segmentation is based on four archetypes of HCP; Independents, Transactionals, Knowledge Seekers and Relationship Seekers. Each displays distinct characteristics in its relationship with Pharma. 

McKinsey’s Archetype Segmentation ModelThis model reveals that the population of Pharma-friendly Relationship Seekers is shrinking fast. Conversely, the volume of Independents (who typically limit their interactions with Pharma and rely on third-party materials for medical information) is growing. Among specialists in the US, Germany and France, Independents have grown from 23% of the population in 2005 to almost 40% in 2017. Conversely, the remaining three archetypes are steadily falling.

The Future 

COVID-19 has changed how people work across continents, countries and sectors. In Europe, these changes may be irreversible. Research in the UK, for example, suggests that 60% of workers would now like to work from home more often, while just a third would like to revert to the status quo. The life sciences industry is at the forefront of these changes, with data that shows a dramatic and significant shift away from face-to-face interaction towards digital engagement. The challenge for any organisation is to manage these changes over the short, medium, and long term. With a critical need to maintain connections between Pharmaceutical companies and healthcare professionals, the life sciences industry is ideally placed to lead digital transformations that address fast moving trends, meet workers’ needs and deliver business continuity. ‘Digital native’ HCPs’ experiences with mobile, social, and digital technologies in their personal lives have also resulted in higher expectations of the technologies they use at work. They expect personalised, relevant, and frictionless experiences regardless of the platform or device.

Most life sciences companies have made progress towards digital transformation. The COVID-19 pandemic is only ever going to accelerate these changes as they move from ‘desirable’ to ‘business critical’. Until now, pace has been measured, but there is now a greater sense of urgency. Post pandemic, we are likely to see digital transformation initiatives shift into overdrive as the industry ensures it is better prepared to avoid future disruption to business continuity.


Across Health, (2018) ‘The journey towards digital natives: is pharma driving against the traffic?’ Available at: https://www.across.health/blog-article/the-journey-towards-digital-natives-is-pharma-driving-against-the-traffic# [Accessed 3 June 2021]

The Journal of mHealth, (2021) ‘Digital Channels Keep HCPs and Pharma Companies Connected During COVID-19’ Available at: https://thejournalofmhealth.com/digital-channels-keep-hcps-and-pharma-companies-connected-during-covid-19/ [Accessed 3 June 2021]

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