What can pharma companies do to quicken the pace of digital disruption?

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The pharma sector is somewhat behind the curve when it comes to digital disruption, with concerns around regulatory compliance and data security combining with legacy systems and the overarching complexity of the sector leaving many organisations on freeze mode.

Observing other sectors, it has become clear that there are myriad benefits to digital disruption, and learnings that could be taken forward into the pharmaceutical sector. This - and an increased focus on customer centricity and growing need to speak directly to end users, many of whom have preferences for digital-first communication – has triggered companies into action.

It goes without saying that digital disruption across the sector, triggered by huge internal change, requires funding. According to our Disconnected Pharma report, 51% of pharma companies will increase their budgets for digital over the next two years, while the remainder will hold steady – showing the scale of the commitment to digital transformation.

The path towards a digitally advanced pharma sector

Innovation is in the pharma sector’s DNA, with almost every company working to develop new drugs or solutions to improve quality of life and cure diseases. Digital is increasingly feeding into these solutions, as well as changing how companies communicate with and engage their customers.

The first port of call for most organisations has been to get their house in order, and that will play the most crucial role in enabling further digital disruption in the sector. Ensuring that robust data security and privacy measures are in place will set the groundwork for brands to build new digital products and seize technologies brought by emerging technologies like AI and the Internet of Things (IoT).

We know that when different perspectives and approaches come together it results in greater innovation. To achieve this, it is important that the industry establishes more collaborative eco-systems and partnerships within the industry to facilitate knowledge-sharing. While there are limits to how much this can be achieved within the current regulatory environment, greater collaboration would ultimately result in better experiences for patients and HCPs.

Despite having a clear plan for how they approach digital transformation, there are still barriers that are slowing the pace of change and restricting how both companies and the sector at large.

What are the barriers standing in the way of digital disruption?

1. Internal budget restrictions

Although most pharma companies are increasing or maintaining their budget for digital adoption and transformation, the question remains: is it enough for companies to achieve their digital objectives? Both digital transformation projects and digital products require a significant investment of time and money to be successful and effective, and the complexity can sometimes be overlooked by those outside of the project team.

There is also a tendency to forget that the digital work is complete at launch, when continuous improvement is needed to maintain new systems or adapt the product to provide a better customer experience as their needs evolve, which requires ongoing funding.

To secure additional funding during development or ongoing funding for improvements, those holding the purse strings expect to see clear ROI. Measurement is therefore crucial, but unfortunately adding KPIs is often something of an afterthought, which makes it challenging to demonstrate impact. Setting clear objectives and KPIs for success before projects begin is essential for both meeting and managing expectations, and for showing how a project is adding value to both the organisation and its customers.

2. Legacy platforms

Pharma companies are often facing challenges posed by legacy systems, which simply do not have the same capabilities as more modern technology – and they cannot be upgraded beyond a certain point. Not only do the systems often not deliver what a team needs, they cannot often be connected to other tools or software that could be used to streamline processes or open up new opportunities for digital disruption.

As a result, many companies are having to invest in overhauling their systems before they can adopt emerging technologies or build new products or solutions that could be valuable to patients or HCPs. Until companies dispose of their legacy platforms, their ability to modernise and innovate will be restricted.

3. Internal structures and mindset

Pharma companies often face significant internal barriers caused by organisational structures, mindset, and culture. Silos between products and departments are impacting access to insights that could be used to enhance effectiveness and preventing knowledge-sharing that could lead to joint innovation.

4. Knowledge and skills

Access to digital skills is an issue across sectors, with tech workers constantly having to update their skills and knowledge in line with the latest digital developments – and with the additional complexity and challenging regulatory environment of the pharma sector, it is unsurprising that this is even more of a challenge. Companies will need to source the talent they need to implement many of their plans or retrain and upskill existing workers to ensure they can seize the opportunities available to them.

5. Regulators on the back foot

Regulation is also a concern, particularly when it comes to more innovative digital products that are pushing the boundaries of what has been achieved previously. Pharma companies are in unchartered waters, which makes it hard to know where a regulator or approving body will stand on new digital products entering the market, which increases the investment risk. They can always be slow to modernise and update policies in line with emerging technologies, as we are currently seeing with the boom in generative AI over the past 18 months.

User experience should underpin digital innovation

While pharma companies have barriers to overcome, one of the main factors that will help to drive digital disruption that genuinely changes the game for customers is focusing on how transformation will improve the user experience.

When prioritising projects, it is important to ask the right questions. How will this particularly software set up the organisation to provide a better user experience? Will this product be helpful for a patient or HCP? This is the best way to ensure that your digital investments pay off, especially if your organisation is determined to adopt a customer centric model.

This means that your digital programmes need to be rooted in customer insight secured through robust research and ongoing conversations, so that your organisation can make decisions based on what HCPs and patients want and need, rather than what you think they want and need. That knowledge should underpin your digital programmes, whether you are adopting new software internally or developing new products.

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Rob Verheul