Interview with Lauren Li (Global Head of Digital Health, Ipsen), Francesca Wuttke (Chief Digital Officer, Almirall), and Timothy White (Vice President, Head of Global Digital Commercial, Teva Pharmaceuticals)
Following the worldwide adoption of digital platforms and tools last year, the pharmaceutical industry has advanced and adopted a digital mindset. In this roundtable, three thought leaders share their perspective on pharma’s progress in this realm, detail the barriers in the way of digital transformation, and outline their vision for the future.
What drew you towards a career in digital transformation?
Li: A common theme through all my professional and volunteer experiences has been helping to broaden access. Right now, I’m focusing on building a bridge between digital technology and pharma to enable broader access to better quality care. Today’s industry is ripe for digital transformation, but we need people who truly understand that pharma can go beyond tech buzzwords to define tangible applications, and that’s a role I love playing.
Wuttke: It’s exciting to be at the vanguard of a space on the cusp of real transformation; to be providing significant benefit to patients, physicians, and our business. I love that digital health can impact lives in a meaningful way; we can treat patients more holistically and deliver deep insights via data analytics. Our mandate is broad and we’re embedding digital across the whole company end-to-end.
White: I grew up in a creative environment having played and written music from childhood, so while many people consider digital transformation to be ‘technical’ in nature, I think it is probably the greatest creative outlet that the world has ever seen. When I entered pharma, I was confronted by this opportunity to help a sector that was saving and improving people’s lives.
How do you think the pharmaceutical industry’s attitude towards digital compares to other industries, both historically and at present?
Li: ‘Digital health’ as a concept has been around for over 2 decades, but in the past 5 years it’s started to garner momentum. A convergence of forces have pushed pharma companies to realise the potential that digital holds. One is the rising competition and subsequent need for differentiation; second is the foray of big tech into healthcare, applying pressure and sparking inspiration for new ways of delivering care; thirdly, we can’t ignore COVID-19’s role in forcing a spotlight on the critical value of digital healthcare.
Wuttke: We are behind in terms of the extent to which we have disrupted our own industry but are making good headway fast. Looking at the automotive industry, there were several car manufacturers that tried to impose a shift to electric vehicles but weren’t taken seriously. Tesla listened to customers to understand what they wanted and have broken away from the pack. It’s important to think about patients as people, not as their specific disease. Digital solutions and advanced analytics allow us to understand how to add real value to patients’ lives in the same way that consumer-driven approaches have put Tesla on the map.
White: There is often a narrative around the pharma industry being old and conservative. While there is some truth to this, this isn’t necessarily correct. Pharma operates in a strictly regulated environment, which does put constraints on what is possible; however, within these constraints, great ideas with relentless execution still win. We are an innovative R&D-based industry that benefits greatly from advances in digital technology. Pharma is well-suited to adopt elements of digitisation even further into the future, notably as our customer base more rapidly adopt technology in their
COVID-19 has accelerated digital adoption within the pharmaceutical industry; what barriers still stand in the way of digital transformation across the sector?
Li: While COVID-19 has catapulted pharma into rethinking how we conduct clinical trials and engage customers to ensure the continuum of care, we need policies to catch up, pharma culture and processes to shift, and the digital talent gap to close. We also need to adopt digital as a mindset; creating a culture of ‘test fast and learn fast’ and adopting processes that encourage it. None of this can happen without people. Digital healthcare talent is in shortage, but companies can and should cultivate digital champions in-house through training and upskilling.
Wuttke: COVID-19 has served as a huge catalyst; we’ve drawn on solutions that have been around for some time because we didn’t have any other choice. Telemedicine has increased and will persist long after the pandemic; patients have come to accept it as the norm and physicians have become more acquainted with it as a mechanism. The scepticism around digital has waned and the urgency of application has greatly increased. There seems to be an acknowledgement that digital is now a must-have rather than a nice-to-have.
White: What has accelerated is the mindset shift in the industry, realising that in an always-on, on-demand, omnichannel world, any commercial approach needs to provide a superior customer experience. We still have a way to go to deliver on this promise, but I do think that the pandemic will be a catalyst for changing our approach towards our customers.
Considering the positive impact that digital could have on the healthcare landscape, what is your hope and vision for the next five years?
Li: I particularly look forward to seeing digital further propel personalised medicine and patient centricity. As more therapies become available, HCPs no longer just need a drug; they need to know what the right drug is for the right patient at the right time. At the same time, HCPs are burdened with electronic health record data entry and yet are deprived of actionable insights to inform individual patient care. There is a tremendous opportunity for personalising care with small and big data and advanced analytics. As technology permeates every aspect of our lives, pharma companies should seek to better understand the holistic ‘life flow’ of patients rather than the typical ‘disease journey’ and amplify the voices of patients as well as caregivers and families.
Wuttke: I hope that the acceleration we’ve seen will create sustained growth across the digital health ecosystem, change the treatment paradigm, and address a myriad of different conditions rather than just one. It’s exciting, but more education has to be done. Patients need to know that software as a drug can be as powerful as traditional therapeutics, and physicians need to know that these are more than just apps; they’re evidence-based and driven by cognitive behavioural therapy, acceptance therapy, and positive psychology. These disciplines can have a real impact on the outcomes of patients. I think the future of digital is bright!
After the pandemic, digital will help the healthcare setting to become much more people-centric
White: I believe that after the pandemic, digital will help the healthcare setting to become much more people-centric. It might seem to be a dichotomy, but I believe that the best uses of technology in healthcare are the ones that allow for deeper, more personalised relationships between patients and professionals alike. Just think of how quickly telemedicine has been accepted or the platforms for booking and managing COVID-19 tests; these activities are allowing people to use technology to manage both their personal health and the overall healthcare system. The ‘forced change’ has given people first-hand experience of it done well, so I’m optimistic about what the future offers.