The pharmaceutical and healthcare industry is rapidly coming to terms with digital technology.

New tech companies are entering the market and existing players have had to up their game, across marketing, sales and operations. If you're relatively new to pharma, like me, here's a summary of just some of the biggest trends.

1. Better patient communication

A fairly obvious area for improvement, and one we can pretty much all relate to as consumers.

The typical patient journey is ripe for digital disruption, as the diagram below from DRG Digital shows. 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 / better updated.

Patient portals, apps and online communities are increasingly commonplace. The second and third generations of this technology should help improve customer experience.

Click to enlarge

digital patient journey

2. Providing services, not just drugs

It's fairly obvious that whilst drugs are vital in treating many conditions and diseases, there is much more for the patient and physician to consider. That could be anything from education or lifestyle advice, to emotional support. Pharma companies have always engaged with the end consumer but digital technology ultimately promises much greater scale.

One such example is AstraZeneca's Day-by-Day coaching service for patients recovering from a heart attack. The service provides a combination of digital content and one-to-one coaching, partnering with the HIPAA-compliant Vida app.

The app helps patients to manage stress, find information, learn about caregiving and chat with a coach. Novartis has taken a similar approach with its Together in HF social network.

one-to-one astrazeneca

The ultimate aim, of course, is for pharma companies to look more to outcome-based solutions which involve greater engagement with patients and third parties. In order to achieve this they must not only assist with holistic patient care in this way, but must also advocate a combination of therapeutics, whether or not they themselves manufacture them.

Providing this type of customer experience may be quite a step change, but pharma has for a decade been coming to terms with the internet's impact on patient knowledge and behaviour.

Consumers are ever more motivated by finding the best treatment and the cheapest price, and pharma must provide the best outcome-based approach to cut through. Indeed, some companies are partnering with third-party tech companies in an effort to promote an unbiased presence in the market.

3. Improving diagnostics and adherence

The concept of the connected human being given personalised care and improved diagnostics is one long foreseen by science fiction. Since wearables entered the market, the idea of ongoing measurement has seemed less fanciful. Indeed, the ubiquity of the smartphone now gives the prospect of reliable access to patient data in the real world. 

One well-publicised example of digital medicine is the ingestible sensor in development by Proteus Digital Health. The company received FDA approval in 2012 for a drug-sensor-app system, which is used to montor adherence.

When the patient takes their pill, it dissolves in the stomach and causes a small voltage (as a small amount of magnesium and copper come together). This voltage is then picked up by a sensor on the body (stuck to the arm) which relays the information (time of ingestion) to a smartphone app and then on to the physician.

Proteus has trialled this system with an antipsychotic and a hypertension pill. The obvious extrapolation is to a future where a range of patient data is securely transmitted to the physician and this will mean less time spent on diagnostics (or more accurate diagnostics) and more on personalising treatment.

This aggregation and analysis of patient data is a field where the seeds of disruption in pharma could already be sown. Watson Health Cloud was created in 2015, in partnership with Apple, Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic, and provides analytics services to healthcare professionals.

Watson Health Cloud analyses data from personal devices, connected medical devices, implants and other sensors, and can support clinical decisions and reduce incorrect diagnoses. Consumers may be motivated to use services such as Apple HealthKit as they pursue value and the best treatment.

This is an area where pharma companies will have to keep step, especially when it comes to proving the value of their drugs. Payors, too, may use more patient data to determine payment.

However, it's worth pointing out that a big wave of extra data doesn't necessarily represent a panacea. The fully quantified self has many ethical and privacy concerns - as Watson builds out knowledge of genomics, clinical and exogenous data, these issues will continue to be debated.

ibm watson health

4. Better sales practices

Back to some good old-fashioned marketing now. Too often, private healthcare professionals or providers must meet with multiple reps from the same pharma company. This is understandable given the expertise needed within each specialism, but from a customer point of view, busy healthcare professionals (HCPs) may be left wanting a more flexible solution.

Increasingly, pharma companies are using digital technology (both customer facing and back-of-house) to provide this. CRM systems can achieve a single customer view and digital communication channels can provide access to samples and resources (for HCPs and patients).

SKURA is one tech company that provides such digital sales enablement for life sciences, and it defines this role of supporting HCPs as 'the trusted concierge'. The aim is just like that of CRM in many other sectors, to 'deliver personalized messages to customers at the right time using the right channel in order to increase revenue and reduce costs.'

Digital sales aids and marketing are now firmly on the rep agenda.

A related area is that of more effectively targeting patients. Patient finder technology such as Vencore Health Analytics combines clinical knowledge with big data to allow drug manufacturers to identify potential patients that may have a disease that is hard to diagnose.

This is similar to the Watson solution discussed above, using health records, genomics and claim data. Such data analysis will not only ultimately improve treatment, but necessarily increase the number of diagnoses.

Havas Health partners with Vencore

havas health analytics

5. R&D and supply chain efficiency

In a recent post on CRM, marketing automation and data management, I discussed the concept of XRM ('anything' relationship management). CRM is not just about increasing sales through customer-facing technology or through analytics. There's much to consider in drug production, too.

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 would bring better productivity, inventory levels, and service levels.

A common theme in the digital transformation of any industry, the digitization of the supply chain represents a security risk to pharma but is a necessary step in meeting raised expectations from all parties.

6. Real-world data and drug development

The proliferation of health analytics solutions has implications for drug development, too. Manufacturers will have access to much more real-world data and this will undoubtedly assist in understanding the effects of a drug.

Dr. Amy Abernethy of Flatiron Health tells McKinsey, “I would want to know what adverse events there are before others surface this for me. With constant monitoring, you will find a lot of signals, and you will need to learn how to handle these signals with respect to reporting to the Food and Drug Administration. But this is not a reason to stick your head in the sand; this is how drug development is going to be done in the 21st century.”

Abernethy goes on to suggest that this means clinical informaticists must eventually rise to become business leaders in pharma, as they help companies come to terms with losing dominance of information about their products. 

So, not only will drug discovery increasingly be aided by digital technology (in predicting successful drugs), but so too will the monitoring of drug use on a wider scale. 

Now read:

Ben Davis

Published 7 March, 2017 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is Deputy Editor at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (1)

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Rosco Steffen, Digital Marketing Associate Benelux at Eli LillyEnterprise

Thanks for sharing. Some interesting examples but also a lot which is not possible in Europe due to regulations. Do you also have more about the changes in Europe?

7 months ago

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