The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered an acceleration of digital transformation within the healthcare and pharma industry. According to a survey by GlobalData, 40% of pharmaceutical industry professionals in Europe and North America believe that the pandemic has accelerated digital transformation by more than five years.

The key question, of course, is whether these accelerated trends will turn into long-term change, but research (and predicted growth) suggests so. Prior to the pandemic, the digital health market was anticipated to experience a 9% annual growth rate between 2019 and 2026. Post-pandemic, that figure has been revised to 33.4% between 2020 and 2027. 

With this in mind, here’s a summary of some of the biggest digital trends and their potential impact on the sector.

Digital-first patient engagement

Ipsos research found that only 10% of healthcare providers (HCPs) in the US had seen patients via telemedicine before the pandemic, with this figure since rising to 70%.

Telemedicine (or telehealth, more broadly) can refer to a range of remote services including video consultations, patient portals (for pre or post-appointment communication), or other types of virtual support.

It is a similar picture in Europe, with 70% of HCPs reporting that they have been doing more online consultations during Covid-19, and that, crucially, 76% of physicians say they will do more virtual visits after the pandemic. This suggests that, while telehealth initially became a matter of urgency (as patients were unable to see doctors face-to-face during the pandemic), wider factors such as time-saving and greater convenience could make virtual services preferable for patients in the long-term.

Alongside advantages for patients, digital services can also remove appointment backlogs and excess burden on staff. This can be purely administrative, with what McKinsey calls the digital ‘front door’ providing patients “with a seamless digital channel to access their providers.”

The patient engagement platform, DrDoctor (which is now widely used in the NHS), predicts that a quarter of outpatient appointments scheduled every week could be removed by taking a digital-first approach. If, for instance, the technology asks patients if they actually want to be seen in-person, or remotely checks if a patient’s symptoms are getting worse. Consequently, DrDoctor suggests that this digital-first strategy could help the NHS to clear its backlog of appointments in just eight months.

Research suggests that consumers could prefer a hybrid approach to healthcare in future. In a recent survey by Kyruss, more than 40% (of US consumers surveyed) said they’d rather access services virtually or through a combination of virtual and in-person visits.

Simon Stebbing, Head of Advertising and Innovation at Ogilvy Health explained to Econsultancy that consumers value the transparency that comes with telehealth, which “allows patients to see their data, access their health records and have prescriptions ready for collection immediately. The speed and seamlessness of that entire process from self-diagnosis, appointment, treatment and fulfilment is something that we all hope will remain.”

“However,” Stebbing says, “for many the relationship they have with their doctor, the social aspect and deeper discussion that is often associated with in-person visits will diminish – so I feel that HCPs need to be a little less telehealth transactional and ensure they are keeping that discussive nature and virtual relationships.”

Not all consumers are willing to embrace virtual appointments of course, and access to technology and a reliable internet connection is not always possible, which is why telehealth innovations are increasingly being combined with physical touchpoints. 

Take Philips’ Virtual Care Station, for example – a telehealth company that delivers virtual care services in convenient locations in the US such as retail stores, libraries, and town halls. In the UK, Medic Spot offers a similar service, enabling patients to book virtual appointments with a private GP at nearby participating pharmacies as well as pick up prescriptions.

Mobile connectivity for personalised health

While telehealth services can streamline diagnostic services, digital technology can also help patients to manage and monitor treatment for certain physical and mental health conditions themselves. Often times the delivery of digital healthcare is done through mobile, enabling a seamless patient experience. 

Econsultancy’s ‘Future of Digital Healthcare’ report, in association with Adobe, explains how mobile has been crucial to the manufacturers of Continuous Glucose Monitoring (CGM) devices for the management of diabetes. Jake Leach, Chief Technology Officer at Dexcom, said: “The ability for remote monitoring is a real boon to patient health and convenience and the pandemic has really shone a light on that need. People in the patient’s care network can get real time glucose alerts or notifications that their loved one may be having an issue.”

As well as mobile, wearable medical devices and apps can help patients monitor a wide range of conditions or reach health goals, such as lowering blood pressure, furthering weight loss, and even reducing pain. Hinge Health, for example, is a digital care system for people with chronic musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions such as back or joint pain, which aims to help patients ease pain and ultimately reduce unnecessary surgeries. 

Another example is Babyscripts, which is a virtual maternity care platform that enables obstetrics to deliver prenatal and postpartum care through the use of a mobile app and remote patient monitoring tools, ultimately reducing in-person hospital visits for the duration of pregnancy. Babyscripts has reportedly reduced prenatal in-person visits  from 12 to 14 to just four to six visits for pregnant patients.

With this type of momentum, investment in medical technology (or medtech) is expected to increase in order to support an ageing population (and reduce strain on healthcare systems) – particularly as new innovation comes to the forefront. According to reports, the medical device industry could reach more than $8.5 billion by 2025.

Ogilvy Health’s Simon Stebbing suggests that connected technology will be the key to personalised healthcare going forward. “The data within the devices is seeing a huge shift from measurement to prediction and prevention,” he says. “As EHR connectivity and access to HCPs improves for example, we will start seeing greater personalisation of healthcare to the individual.”

“The aggregation of key data across patient populations will also open opportunities for many pharma companies to become data companies who can tailor treatments to individuals. With the new iOS Health for example, gait and other assessments are being made real time with the option for that data to be shared in real time with HCPs – although whether they have capacity outside of the patient appointment to review and assess is an entirely different matter.”

Growing competition within healthcare ecommerce

With both HCP’s and patients increasingly using the internet for medical research, SEO within healthcare and pharma is growing in importance. During the Google Search Central SEO hangout on March 26th, Google’s John Mueller stressed that the search engine is most concerned with expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (EAT) when it comes to companies within the ‘Your Money Your Life’ (YMYL) category. 

Mueller stated: “I think it’s especially, when it comes to these kind of sites, it’s less about the tactics and really more about making sure that it really is a legitimate business and that it’s backed up by appropriate trustworthy sources. So not just high quality content, and doing all of this syndication, all of these things. But really making sure that it’s written by doctor, it’s created by medical professionals who are legitimate in their field.”

Online presence is something that Amazon knows a thing or two about, making its continued expansion into healthcare ecommerce even more notable. Since Amazon’s acquisition of digital pharmacy PillPack in 2018, it has made a number of moves within the pharmaceutical sector, most notably with the launch of Amazon Pharmacy in November 2020. Amazon Pharmacy enables users to search and compare generic and branded medications using its website or app, with Prime members also receiving a savings benefit. More recently, Insider reported that Amazon is to launch a new ‘Diagnostics’ brand that includes Covid testing kits as well as ones for respiratory and sexually transmitted diseases.

Rob LaHayn, CEO of Touchcare, told Pharmaceutical Technology that Amazon’s moves within the space could prove dangerous for independent and small pharmacies in the US. “With around 126 million Amazon Prime members,” he said “many are going to seriously consider switching their prescription services over to the convenient and inexpensive Amazon experience.”

It’s not only Amazon that is making moves in the space. A number of direct-to-consumer healthcare companies (such as Hims, Ro, and Blink Health) are meeting demand for fast, efficient, and convenient delivery of health-related products such as vitamins and over-the-counter medicine, taking away the need to visit a doctor and a pharmacy.

The Lancet offers a word of caution, explaining that “although the attractiveness of these products to consumers is clear, direct-to-consumer products bypass the typical filters and safeguards of health-care systems. The risk is that low value, or even harmful, products will inundate the commercial health-care market.”

As such, regulation is key, as is the role of clinicians in guiding patients about the benefits (and potential pitfalls) of direct-to-consumer products.

Artificial intelligence for drug discovery

From the discovery of the right candidates for clinical trials to uncovering diagnoses, artificial intelligence is now widely used in healthcare and pharma. Another area gaining traction is drug discovery, with a growing number of companies using AI and machine learning to gain insight into diseases and potential drugs. Just last November, Google’s AI, DeepMind, announced that its AlphaFold programme could predict protein structure, demonstrating how computational methods can transform research in biology. 

According to Google, AlphaFold will help in the understanding of specific diseases, “for example by helping to identify proteins that have malfunctioned and to reason about how they interact. These insights could enable more precise work on drug development.”

Industry professionals remain cautious about overly hyping such announcements, however, there are two areas in which companies are seeing valuable results. As outlined by Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News, these stem from “NLP algorithms” which “can rapidly comb through vast collections of data and identify previously overlooked patterns and relationships that might be relevant to a disease’s etiology and pathology.” Secondly, machine learning can be used in a similar way for the “image analysis” of visual data such as MRI scans (rather than text-based documents), “to go deeper into their analyses of disease pathology.”

Another implementation of artificial intelligence within healthcare is in the supply chain, enabling increased efficiency through digitisation. In this context, AI can also be used to track and report drug or vaccine side effects, such as those seen from the Covid-19 vaccine. Nasdaq explains how the UK Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) used Genpact’s AI technology solution to enable the government to track the vaccine rollout (by batch, lot, and location) as well as to analyse and report on any adverse effects.

This type of innovation, says Ogilvy Health’s Simon Stebbing, “is something the industry has been crying out for” to accelerate “the process of getting products to market”.

VR for remote training and assistance

The Covid-19 pandemic has heightened the need for remote training within healthcare, as clinicians and medical students have been unable to attend in-person. Virti is one company that offers a solution in the form of mixed reality technology, enabling users to interact with virtual patients and undertake role play scenarios. The aim is to help healthcare professionals develop soft skills, such as explaining diagnoses and handling difficult or stressful situations.

Dr Alex Young, Founder and CEO of Virti, suggests that the immersive nature of the training can be far more effective for students retaining knowledge compared to face-to-face or book-based learning, citing a study that found training with Virti’s immersive digital technology improved understanding of infection control measures by 76%, and improved knowledge retention of crucial health and safety guidelines by 230%. 

“In short, XR training (i.e. cross or mixed reality) offers a cheaper, faster, more effective and simpler route to skill acquisition, whilst also boosting confidence and enabling scalability,” he told Tech Round. “The sky really is the limit when it comes to expanding and leveraging the power of XR tech in the education domain.”

Beyond basic education, companies are also harnessing AI, ML, and VR for real-time and remote medical assistance and training. Touch Surgery’s VR technology simulates operations to enable surgeons to practice their skills outside of the operating room, while its AI-powered surgical video management platform enables surgeons to analyse and share videos.

Similarly, Proximie is a technology company that enables surgeons to collaborate and share their skills in real-time, as well as remotely participate in live procedures. In September 2020, it was announced that Proximie had completed its 5000th procedure, with an average of 700 procedures taking place each month in 35 countries across five continents.

Growing smart health communities

While healthcare companies tend to think of digitisation as something they should implement (and bring to patients) – it’s also the case that wider consumer behaviour is impacting healthcare. In other words, consumers are increasingly seeking out digital healthcare on their own terms and in the channels they already use. 

We are seeing some evidence of companies meeting consumers where they are. Econsultancy’s ‘Future of Digital Healthcare’ report cites how GSK launched a testing tool for a lung condition via WeChat. If the user achieved a breath test score of less than 70%, the self-testing tool alerted them to go for a hospital check-up.

Paul Duxbury, Program Director, Marketing Capability at GSK explained to Econsultancy how “creating another app” is not necessarily helpful for the end user. “In countries like China, our customers are absolutely locked into comprehensive ecosystems like Weibo and WeChat,” he says. “As healthcare providers, you have to be humble and say how do I fit into the lives that customers are living and take advantage of how their lives are being digitized…”

As well as existing social channels, we are also seeing the creation of social networks dedicated to healthcare, such as MedHelp and HealthUnlocked. The latter works a network of 500+ Patient Advocacy Groups to provide support to members in condition-specific communities, as well as refer people to validated sources like the NHS and the World Health Organisation in order to combat the spread of misinformation online. Jorge Armanet, Chief Executive and Co-founder of HealthUnlocked, describes platforms like HealthUnlocked as “smart health communities”, which help to “connect people to everything they need to live a healthy life.”

“Think instantaneous online doctor consultations versus taking a day off work to visit a fully staffed surgery. Or educational online programmes aimed at improving patient’s prescription drug dosage compliance versus the cost to both the individual and the system of non-compliance,” he says.

With attitudes towards healthcare shifting since Covid, and technology playing an increasing role in patient journeys, we could see even more disruption from the digital health market in the near future.

Healthcare and Pharmaceutical