The road to digital success in pharma

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Pharmaceutical companies are running hard to keep pace with changes brought about by digital technology. Mobile communications, the cloud, advanced analytics, and the Internet of Things are among the innovations that are starting to transform the healthcare industry in the ways they have already transformed the media, retail, and banking industries. Pharma executives are well aware of the disruptive potential and are experimenting with a wide range of digital initiatives. Yet many find it hard to determine what initiatives to scale up and how, as they are still unclear what digital success will look like five years from now. This article aims to remedy that. We believe disruptive trends indicate where digital technology will drive the most value in the pharmaceutical industry, and they should guide companies as they build a strategy for digital success.

Trends reshaping healthcare

Outcomes-based care is moving to center stage

Payors and governments have an ever sharper focus on managing costs while delivering improved patient outcomes, putting an even greater onus on pharma companies to demonstrate the value of their drugs in the real world—not just in randomized controlled trials—if they are to retain market access and premium pricing. In this environment, digitally enabled “beyond the pill” solutions, which include not just drugs but also sensors to collect and analyze data to monitor a patient’s condition between visits to healthcare providers, are becoming critical to serving both parties’ needs. These solutions help drive the adherence to treatment and outcomes that payors and governments seek, and they generate the data that pharma companies need to demonstrate their drugs’ superior efficacy.

Patients are becoming more engaged

In a digital age, patients are much less dependent on their doctors for advice, increasingly able and willing to take greater control of their own health. They feel empowered by the vast amount of health information available online and on apps, and by the array of health and fitness wearables such as FitBit and Apple Watch. In one survey, more than 85 percent of patients said they were confident in their ability to take responsibility for their health and knew how to access online resources to help them do so.1 In addition, patients are becoming keener to evaluate different healthcare products and services given that they bear a growing proportion of the costs. In a digital world, the ability to engage with patients as they make such evaluations could be key to the success of a pharma company’s commercial model.

New competitors are moving in

Information and insights into patients’ histories and clinical pathways are no longer the preserve of the traditional healthcare establishment. Where once health providers’ paper-based medical records were the main source of patient health data, and drug research and development data were kept within the walls of the pharma companies, today, technology companies such as Apple, IBM, and Qualcomm Technologies are moving into healthcare. They are able to engage with patients through apps, health and fitness devices, and online communities, for example. And they are able to collect petabytes of data from these and other sources, such as electronic medical records and insurance claims, capturing valuable insights. For example, the IBM Watson Health platform—recently at the center of a partnership with Apple and its HealthKit health-sensor data platform—is using advanced analytics and natural-language-processing capabilities to deliver clinical decision support. Pharma companies will need to decide soon how to position themselves to compete or collaborate with these new players, or build complementary capabilities.

More information is available about product performance

Historically, pharma companies have controlled both the generation and dissemination of information about their products. Digital technologies have weakened that control, opening an array of new, independent information channels. There are online communities for sharing and discussing patients’ experiences, apps and sensors to monitor the impact of therapy on a patient’s daily life, and advanced data aggregation and analysis to link disparate, complex data sets and generate new insights into drug safety and efficacy. In response, pharma companies will have to build the capabilities to anticipate or react rapidly to these new sources of evidence, and remain the main source of authority on the performance of their products.

Process efficiency and agility is improving dramatically

Advanced analytics, sensors, and the automation of complex decisions are capable of delivering a step change in the efficiency, speed, quality, and responsiveness of business processes in all industries. The pharmaceutical industry is no exception. To thrive in a digital world, pharma companies will need to deploy next-generation technologies to streamline their business processes. They need to achieve near real-time transparency of their clinical-trials portfolio in R&D, for example, and frictionless sales and operations planning in the supply chain, as well as meet new expectations in efficiency and agility from customers, employees, patients, and suppliers.

Four areas of digital opportunity

Against this backdrop, we believe there are four main areas where digital developments will drive value for pharma companies, building on what we see as the key components of digital success—an ability to deliver more personalized patient care, engage more fully with physicians and patients, use data to drive superior insight and decision making, and transform business processes to provide real-time responsiveness.

Companies do not have to become leaders in all four areas across the enterprise—some will deliver more value than others in relation to any given disease, depending on market dynamics and their portfolio. But to decide where to concentrate their efforts, they do need to develop a point of view on each area’s potential to transform their commercial and innovation models. To help in these decisions, we sketch here a picture of how we believe successful pharma companies will operate in each area in the near future.

Personalized care: Sensors and digital services for tailored, 24/7 treatment

The ability to personalize interactions with stakeholders is a key value driver from digital technology in any industry. In pharma, this value will be realized in large part through the use of sensors and digital services to provide tailored care around the clock.

Within five to seven years, a significant proportion of the pharmaceutical portfolio will create value through more than just drugs. Many drugs will be part of a digital ecosystem that constantly monitors a patient’s condition and provides feedback to the patient and other stakeholders. This ecosystem will help improve health outcomes by tailoring therapy to a patient’s clinical and lifestyle needs and enable remote monitoring by health professionals of a patient’s condition and adherence to treatment. There is already a plethora of wireless sensors on the market to measure a patient’s biophysical signals. Combining these with other data about patients as they go about their daily lives—nutritional information collected by a smart refrigerator, for instance, or exercise information from smart gym weights—will allow real-time alerts to be issued to caregivers and physicians when there is a need for intervention.

For example, a care plan for a Parkinson’s patient might include a medication regimen with “chip on a pill” technology to monitor drug taking along with a smartwatch that monitors the patient’s condition, sends him or her reminders to adhere to the prescribed treatment, and sends the neurologist compliance and health-status reports. The neurologist can then coach patients on lifestyle changes or even customize therapy remotely. Such digitally enabled approaches to patient care are likely to improve outcomes to the extent that they could become a condition of reimbursement, particularly for expensive specialty drugs.

Several companies already offer integrated products and services. WellDoc, for example, has launched BlueStar, the first FDA-approved mobile app for managing type 2 diabetes, while AliveCor has built a smartphone-based electrocardiogram. Patients take their own readings, which can be reviewed by a remote expert without the cost and delay associated with seeing a specialist. Many more of these kinds of products have recently been approved or are in development.

Medication itself will of course still be important. But it will be more personalized, targeting the needs of each patient with greater precision than before. Advanced data analytics that mine electronic medical records, including diagnostic results, medication history, and genomic, proteomic, and gene-expression data will help identify optimal therapies and predict how individual patients will respond to treatment.

Fuller engagement: Omnichannel conversations with physicians and patients

Digital-engagement technologies open up a whole new world for marketing, the exchange of information, and recruitment for trials. Pharmaceutical sales reps, medical-science liaisons, and patient-service teams can inform and influence patients, physicians, and caregivers in person or via mobile phones, the Internet, apps, or social media. Patients are already starting to use patient portals for their medical records and to communicate with their physicians, and they use apps to fill scripts and online patient communities to speak to other patients with the same disease.

Anytime-anywhere virtual care will become increasingly commonplace. Specialist virtual-care apps already exist. NeoCare Solutions, developed by Aetna, gives new parents returning home with infants from the intensive care unit on-demand coaching from a neonatal nurse. The US Department of Defense is testing robots to engage and screen soldiers for posttraumatic stress disorder,2 while in the United Kingdom, political parties are making promises to enable patients to use Skype to call their general practitioners by 2020.

All of these interactions offer pharma companies the opportunity to derive value. To realize it, they will have to build advanced digital marketing and engagement capabilities similar to those deployed by leading retailers, airlines, telecom companies, and consumer-goods companies.

About the authors

David Champagne is an associate principal in the London office, Amy Hung is a specialist in the New Jersey office, and Olivier Leclerc is a director in the Southern California office.