The RWD Revolution


Words by Isabel O’Brien

The value of real-world data (RWD) during the pandemic was huge, but how was the pharmaceutical industry able to harness the flow of insights, and what learnings can be carried into its future approach to RWD?


The volume of real-world data (RWD) generated, copied, analysed, and consumed has reached new heights during the COVID-19 pandemic. From the surge in experimental treatment paradigms, to the volumes of information regarding mutations, variants, and contagion spikes, the pharmaceutical industry’s RWD pool is overflowing with insights. While data is a powerful asset in a time of crisis, the rapid increase in RWD generation has placed insights in jeopardy of not being harnessed and maximised to their full potential. So what solutions were found over the last 18 months and how can these be used to wrangle RWD more effectively going forward?


The standout solution has been to invest in and extract insights from public-private information management tools called data dashboards. As children, we will have all fruitlessly attempted to catch the raindrops as they fell from the sky; the RWD boom has been nothing short of a waterfall, and these dashboards have enabled insights to be captured and analysed in centralised locations. “Data dashboards address the hunger for relevant and timely information about the fast-changing situation in an easily digestible format,” says Tony Thomas, UK Lead, COVID-19 Initiatives, Surgo Ventures. “The availability of comprehensive, timely datasets has been a boon for both public medicine and clinical research during the pandemic and has undoubtedly improved the quality and speed of decision making,” affirms Dr Neil Ravenhill, Senior Vice President, ScienceAffinity.


While there are countless data dashboards that have been used by the industry throughout the pandemic, Thomas raises Surgo Ventures’ ‘UK Vulnerability Impact Tracker’ as an example, which traces how health, economic, and social inequities can impact the outcomes of COVID-19 infections by tracking how vulnerable communities are doing based on cases, testing, hospitalisation, and deaths. Ravenhill provides the example of the GISAID Initiative, which tracks data relating to genetic sequencing, epidemiology, human viruses, and geography, as well as species-specific data associated with avian and other animal viruses to help researchers understand how viruses evolve and spread. While these examples are COVID-19 specific, they illuminate the power and versatility of data dashboards, demonstrating how imperative it is that new use cases are investigated, developed, and adopted.


While RWD has been used as a supplementary efficacy source for some time, before the pandemic its use was limited in many spheres, a constraint which could be set to change through the introduction of more dashboards. “The new trend during the pandemic, where near real-time and integrated data have been proven to be both feasible and valuable, would certainly enable more rapid adoption in transforming data-driven decision-making, more proactive evidence generation, and health ecosystem collaboration,” says Qin Ye, Principal, Real-world Evidence Leader, ZS Associates. When thinking about potential use cases, Thomas envisions: “Product-focused data dashboards that could track adoption of new products and monitor for adverse side-effects,” while also advocating for, “disease-focused data dashboards that highlight region-specific demand for medical care – both current and future.” The power of RWD, and the subsequently generated real-world evidence (RWE), extends from adherence and efficacy to brand differentiation and market access.


If RWD dashboards are to be further adopted into organisations, it will be critical for the medical affairs function to back their value case, as well as bolster understanding of these insights across their organisations: “The management of data from all sources, and especially RWD, is critical to the long-term success of an effective medical affairs function, and, in turn, to the continued success of the brand, especially in increasingly competitive environments,” says Ravenhill. “For data curators and medical affairs teams, providing appropriate support and education to data users is essential, a point highlighted very strongly during the current pandemic, where the same data sets are being used to support radically opposing narratives.”


The danger of RWD is that it can be vulnerable to misrepresentation or manipulation, therefore it will be important that dashboards of this kind are upheld to rigorous standards to ensure that any evidence generated is both relevant and legitimate. “MA organisations have a vital role in maintaining trust – both with patients, by providing relevant, timely information via new digital channels, and with their own colleagues by distilling customer insights from patient feedback and translating RWD into actionable product and service offerings,” agrees Thomas. While innovation in this area is important, MA teams must be careful that dashboards are an aid rather than a hinderance to their activities.


The wave of RWD could have easily washed over the pharma industry, but instead the sector has sought to capture and bottle any insights that could help their mission against COVID-19. As the peak of the pandemic slides further away, RWD must be left gleaming on the shore, ready to be picked up by high-functioning MA teams of the future who are keen to understand more about their products and patient populations.