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Digital Request: Pending

Words by Martin Barrow.

The future of the pharmaceutical industry is as tied up with digital transformation as it is with having a pipeline of promising new drugs. Digital is transforming the way the world does business and pharma is no exception. Many of the top companies have chief digital officers, supported by digital specialists in senior management positions, and billions of pounds are being invested in digital strategies.

Yet the perception is that pharma is falling behind the digital curve, particularly when compared to other industries. “Most pharmaceutical companies we work with recognise that digital technologies can drive transformation and growth, but many aren’t yet realising this potential”, said Yen-Sze Soon, Managing Director, Accenture.

What’s going wrong? According to McKinsey’s ‘Closing the digital gap in pharma’ report, too many pharma companies align on their strategy first and treat digital engagement as an aspect of execution, rather than as a central consideration in strategic planning. Digital initiatives are sidelined, instead of being utilised to enable effective connections with patients and doctors. Successful engagement starts first with developing a deep understanding of how patients and doctors want to interact and then designing ways to engage that fit those preferences.

“Digital initiatives are sidelined, instead of being utilised to enable effective connections with patients and doctors”

Patient communication is a good starting point. Digitisation promises obvious improvements to the typical patient journey. From the healthcare provider’s point of view, the visit, diagnosis, treatment selection, and condition management stages are all points where the patient could be more involved and better informed. Patient portals, apps, and online communities are increasingly commonplace. The second and third generations of this technology should help improve the patient experience.

To succeed, pharma companies will need to think more about providing services, not just drugs. While drugs are vital in treating many conditions and diseases, there is much more for the patient and doctor to consider, such as lifestyle advice and emotional support. Pharma companies have always engaged with the end consumer but digital technology ultimately promises much greater scale. For example, Novartis and AstraZeneca both provide coaching services for patients recovering from a heart attack, combining digital content and one-to-one coaching.

Digital technologies, such as cognitive computing and connected devices, are revolutionising R&D in pharma, dramatically impacting the speed and economics of the process. The availability of data on an individual’s genotype, environment, or lifestyle, combined with advanced technologies, such as genomics, data analytics, and improved modelling, allow for faster discovery of drugs, as well as better prediction of the efficacy and safety of different treatment alternatives for specific patients.

Digitisation of pharmaceutical treatments also changes the commercial and sales process. Doctors and other healthcare providers no longer spend time with sales representatives to learn about new products. They find this information online. Sales has now become a far more complex process of engaging with decision-making committees focused on price and patient outcomes. Increasingly, pharma companies are using digital technology (both customer-facing and back-of-house) to provide this. Customer relationship management systems can achieve a single customer view, and digital communication channels can provide access to samples and resources for healthcare professionals and for patients.

R&D can be improved by bringing real-time technology to bear on clinical trials, and the supply chain could benefit from better sales and operations planning. This should bring better productivity, inventory levels, and service levels.

“Pharma companies will need to think more about providing services, not just drugs”

The proliferation of health analytics solutions has implications for drug development, too. Manufacturers will have access to significantly more real-world data and this will undoubtedly help with understanding the effects of a drug. Not only will drug discovery increasingly be aided by digital technology in predicting successful drugs but so too will the monitoring of drug use.

Significantly, two of the biggest pharma companies looked outside the pharma industry to recruit executives to senior digital roles. GlaxoSmithKline recruited Karenann Terrell from Walmart and Novartis hired Bertrand Bodson from Argos.

Mr Bodson says digital represents “one of the most important and disruptive challenges in the years to come.” Ms Terrell sees artificial intelligence as a huge business opportunity for healthcare and pharma. She says: “Along with R&D, our regulated manufacturing and supply chain will benefit from AI simplifying high levels of complexity with solutions that target the highest areas of reducing risk and improving quality.”

The pharma industry has always been conservative by nature. This is being challenged by digitisation, which requires change to take place over months or even weeks, rather than years. The prize for fully embracing a digital future will be great, for pharma and for patients. Getting it wrong would be calamitous for some of the industry’s biggest names.

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