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The ‘Pharmasaurus’ aims to evolve into a leader in the digital age

Published on 12/11/15 at 03:24pm
Proteus Digital and Otuska's 'digital pill'

Pharma’s new-found willingness to embrace all aspects of the digital age, and use it both to its advantage and that of its customers, is no better evidenced than in the rise of the chief digital officer.

A recent survey conducted by McKinsey Global found that around 30% of pharma companies now have somebody employed in this or a very similar role.

The pharma industry has often been considered slow off the mark in the digital realm. This is because in most cases pharma lacks the advantage enjoyed by recently established companies in newer sectors, of being founded after the onset of the digital revolution, and so having digital built into its DNA from the start.

Thankfully this is changing. The FDA’s recent agreement to review a New Drug Application from Proteus Digital and Otuska, for a ‘digital pill’, means that the floodgates have potentially opened to encourage pharma companies to consider new avenues for their digital efforts.

First digital pill NDA

The digital pill – the first to be the subject of an NDA submitted to a regulator – is an Abilify (aripirprazole) tablet embedded with a sensor that detects when it has been taken by a patient, and sends information about medication adherence to a doctor or other healthcare professional.

And in a similar breakthrough, Novartis has announced an alliance with Google to develop a prototype contact lens which measures glucose in the tears of people with diabetes, and communicates this information to a mobile phone so that patients can better manage their medication.

The Pharmasaurus

But the industry as a whole has been slow to catch on, says Roche’s global head of its digital group, Dina Rey.

Speaking at the PreCommerce summit in London, Rey referred to the term ‘pharmasaurus’ to describe companies that are still stuck in the past when it comes to technological innovation.

She described pharma as a regulated industry with an old model needing to be disrupted, saying: “If you look at Google for example, it has a market capitalisation of around $367 billion while Roche is around $264 billion. It is incredible that a company that started in 1999 has surpassed Roche, which started more than 100 years ago.”

But is this lost ground a problem of the industry’s own making? Pharma is often seen as reluctant to embrace change, and on many occasions, companies in the industry have not enjoyed immediately positive results from any attempt to adopt digital as a key strategy, and thus gone cold on the subject.

But in their defence, the leading pharma companies are huge, with so many different departments and diverse fields, that creating an all-encompassing digital strategy is easier said than done.

Pharma company strategies

This is not to mention the fact that digital itself is such a broad term in the pharma context: one that can cover everything from drugs and wearables, to online marketing to patient communications and mobile applications, data collection and analysis. So it takes a concerted effort to hammer out an effective digital strategy that is relevant to the company in question. This is where the digital officer becomes invaluable.

Rey told Pharmafocus: “I have a very strong opinion on the digital officer. I’m speaking from experience, because in the decentralised environment at Roche, a lot of digital stuff is happening, and there is a lot of vertical in the organisation: a hodge-podge of people who happen to work in digital.

“So with all the relevant stuff we’re driving, the different functions and units in pharma: medical, commercial, product development, diagnostics and so on, it is great to have a chief digital officer, firstly to join up all these different units and give them a consistent aligned cause, purpose and vision, but also for such a person to drive the dialogue that is needed with senior management at that level. And I believe other companies are in a similar situation with digital.”

Bayer is another company that has recently moved to prioritise digital. Jessica Federer has been the company’s chief digital officer since 2014. Speaking to Pharmafocus, she enthused on its willingness to adapt in the digital realm and the progress made in the last year alone.

“We have had a great team of people working together over the past year. Bayer has kicked off what we call a digital transformation, and we did it really from the topdown. The board members, chief executive, everybody came together and said ‘we are going to prioritise digital and have a digital strategy and focus.’

“The most exciting thing is just how far Bayer has come this year. We started with the vision and now have a digital council across the entire organisation, a digital circle for pharma, for consumer care, for animal health, for crop science; we now have digital transformation teams within the countries and the structure in place to enable people to do what they do, faster.”

Customers driving digital demand

One area that has been heavily impacted by digital is patient engagement. It is clear that the modern consumer, as a result of the changes enabled by digital, expects and demands more from the companies to which they give their business. They want communication to be a two-way affair.

Huge recent advances in technology have not only changed the way pharma companies operate internally, but have also seen a change in its relationship to its clients: namely patients, buyers, doctors and pharmacists. Pharma is determined to use this as an opportunity, rather than view it as a problem to be overcome.

Patients are more engaged and informed in their own healthcare. This can be seen in the boom in the health wearable market. A recent report by IMS Health found the number available to consumers has reached more than 165,000. Similarly, the International Data Corporation anticipates that by 2018, 70% of healthcare organisations around the world will invest in consumer health technology, including apps, wearables and remote- monitoring tools.

So patients have more channels available to take responsibility for their wellbeing and to diagnose and monitor symptoms without visiting a GP. And so pharma has responded by moving beyond the pill and into providing the apps, web platforms and wearable devices that enable this.

How pharma is responding

Today, doctors, hospitals and pharma companies can monitor patients’ health through these platforms, and more recently, digital pills with sensors to ensure they are adhering to their treatment regimens. This all results in a huge amount of data collection, which Federer says has “changed the way we engage and interact and enabled us to learn more and be able to do more with that information.”

The proliferation of mobile devices means that communication is very much two-way. Not only can pharma collect data on patients, but they can also provide greater guidance and advice on health information to families, wherever they may be in the world.

Federer comments: “What excites me most are the innovations that are accessible by anyone. You see a lot of healthcare innovations for specific devices or wearables, but only a small segment of the world population can  actually benefit from those.

“What I find really exciting in new innovations is how easily we can share information, because in many countries, more people have mobile phones than have access to a toilet! If you can communicate health information and  health development information to families, through their mobile devices, in a meaningful way that they can understand, you can have a much bigger public health impact.”

In developing their consumer-facing digital offerings, companies are increasingly keen to introduce new ideas through partnerships with innovative and creative startups. Bayer recently introduced its Grants4apps programme “in a bid to attract a new wave of digital health talent.” The programme rewards successful applicants with €50,000, office space in Bayer’s Berlin headquarters and mentorship from leading company figures.

Federer comments: “This year we’ve had applicants from countries all over the world. Start-ups from over 80 countries have come to Bayer and we find that what they really appreciate is the mentorship. Having the CMO, or CFO or CIO of Bayer healthcare mentor you in how you develop your business plan, how you talk to stakeholders, how you can communicate the business value of your product, is hugely valuable to them.”

Grants4apps gave rise to the popular application Pill Reminder, and the company is hoping for further success in the app sphere by nurturing top talent and innovators: a win-win situation for both parties, as well as the app users who will benefit from increased choice.

Roche too is making strides into the app realm. Dina Rey says: “We are working with the product development organisation to develop an app for multiple sclerosis, analysing the gait of the person to see if there are early signs and symptoms of MS.”

Data safety

Although the huge amount of patient data on offer in the digital age affords pharma companies incredible opportunities for R&D and new treatment approaches, privacy concerns will remain an issue. Federer, however, believes patients will be willing to trade their data for the good it can potentially do. She says: “Because we have been doing clinical trials with patients for so long, we are used to being very cautious with people’s data and always have been.

“It is a new area, but one way to think about it is that your personal data is like money in the bank, and you are happy to put your money in the bank if you are getting interest on it. Similarly, you are happy to give people access to your information and data if you feel you are getting something of value in return. It is important for us as we move forward to give benefit either to the individual or to society from them giving up their data.”

Digital future

It is clear there is no one-size-fits-all digital strategy that can guarantee success for any pharma company. Digital’ is too broad a term, and companies too diverse in their areas of specialisation, for that. But the rise of the chief  digital officer, and dedicated teams and departments at top companies, specifically working on appropriate digital strategies, shows the industry is at last embracing change.

Rey comments: “From what I’ve seen, first of all you really have to tune in to your own organisation to come up with the right strategy that is competitive. You have to look introspectively at your organisation, and consider the mindset, the dynamic, and the organisational structure, the business model and the business’s specific key priorities.

“You can only make a digital strategy real by marrying it with the purpose of the organisation. If you don’t do that, you will continue talking about digital transformation and telling them that because a competitor is investing millions in multi-channel, you have to do that as well. All that doesn’t really transform a company; you have to marry the strategy to your company’s own objectives.”

In her role at Bayer, Federer is looking forward to the positive impact of further digital evolution and the positive impact it can have on patients around the world in diverse ways, including helping doctors in China see 100 patients a day, or creating a portal where women in Brazil can get answers to their questions on gynaecology.

“I think these individual, smaller examples, although they may not have huge scope and impact, are in fact not little at all. They are very important. That’s where we have to engage with the customer. In the coming years, you can look forward to seeing more of that activity.”

What the rise of digital will ultimately mean for the pharma industry and its patients is impossible to say, but  perhaps the most exciting thing to consider is that this is just the beginning.

Joel Levy

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