Words by Isabel O’Brien
The patient experience is paramount for the pharmaceutical industry, but for too long the buck has stopped at providing treatments. The COVID-19 pandemic has created a market for innovative disease management technologies, with pharma able to serve patients as customers for the first time in this space. From telehealth to digital therapeutics to even technology as treatments, how could disease management look in the future if pharma seizes the moment and invests in the healthcare overhaul?
An alarm beeps and our patient wakes up. They reach for their phone and receive a notification to inject their medication. They potter downstairs, still wrapped up in a dressing gown and slippers, and administer the drug themselves – safely, from the comfort of their kitchen. Sometime after lunch, the doctor calls; his avatar beaming as a light pulsates around it. They talk, the patient tries to hide their low mood, but the AI technology flags a change in demeanour. The doctor consults a clinical decision platform, which advises him to prescribe a chatbot recommended by other physicians. As our patient gets ready for bed, they ask the tool questions, easing the late-night anxiety that routinely builds up in their head.
Until this year, this picture of high-tech, connected healthcare was an abstract fantasy, but with the demand now in place, the pharmaceutical industry is launching beyond healthcare professional strategies, and serving patients by investing in the virtual solutions of tomorrow. “We are at a critical and unique juncture where science, technology, and big data are really coming together in new and exciting ways to help us not just develop new treatments, but also develop digital healthcare,” declares Emma Höglund, Head of Commercial Excellence and Digital Strategy, UK, Novartis.
While the pharma industry has recognised this boom and is launching a response, they are relatively inexperienced in this arena, meaning that the industry must look beyond itself to make a future like this a reality: “We realise that in order for us to focus on the greater good, we really can’t do it alone. We must provide value-added services that will alleviate the healthcare burden, by identifying opportunities to partner with traditional as well as non-traditional players,” says Nancy Brandt, Senior Leader, Medical Customer Experience for Personalised Healthcare, Roche.
We realise that in order for us to focus on the greater good, we really can’t do it alone
Partnerships with digital start-ups will be an effective vehicle, with unions matching up pharma companies’ clinical rigour and financial muscle with a start-up’s aptitude for creative innovation: “Many innovators don’t have access to the resources. They need to get their solutions to the market, but often none of them are in these major urban centres where companies like Johnson & Johnson or JLABS are, so we want to be able to lift up all places that have the best technology so they are able to reach patients,” says Melinda Richter, Global Head of Innovation, JLABS, Johnson & Johnson.
What is crucial though is selecting the most valuable technologies to invest in, based on thorough research into patient challenges and digging deeper than mere face-value assumptions: “What folks express as a problem is often not the real issue, for example, sometimes patients might have frustrations related to finding parking at the hospital. In reality, it’s not really a parking frustration, it’s the inability to administer the drug at home. Getting to the root of that problem is really critical to help us identify how we can support individuals in their journey to address these frustrations,” says Brandt.
Once an unmet need has been identified, it is important to look at the patient populations that could benefit and focus on how to make that solution both affordable and accessible to all: “What we’ve learned from 2020 is that there is inequity in access to care and it’s created this disparity in outcomes for patients. So as you’re thinking about your challenges, I want you to think about how to also reach all these different communities, whether it’s communities of colour or impoverished communities, please don’t leave them out when developing these products and solutions,” pleads Richter.
While COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on traditional healthcare approaches, it has also birthed a new generation of digital literates, who the pharma industry must seek to nurture through innovative, digital partnerships that foster technological solutions: “I think it’s really exciting to see how a digital transformation can be accelerated by outside forces and hopefully a lot of the changes that we implemented in these days will persist and it will change how we operate as an industry,” says Francesca Wuttke, Chief Digital Officer, Almirall. It is time to empower patients to manage diseases on their own terms and turn what is currently an enchanting fiction into an accessible and affordable reality.