Pharma highlights from 2019 and a look ahead to 2020

Views & Analysis

Paul Tunnah looks at the trends that defined this year in pharma and what they might mean for 2020.

As ever, it’s been a packed year for pharma and the general impression I get from people in the industry is that they have never been busier, nor has a year ever passed by more rapidly.

I would echo those thoughts – it’s definitely been non-stop here at pharmaphorum, but all in a good way as we’ve seen another record year in terms of both global audience and commercial success.

But does busy-ness translate to good business for all of us and, of course, patients?

There have been many interesting advances for pharma this year, in terms of science, technology and commercial deals, but I’ll let others cover those. Taking a more helicopter view on things, my articles this year provide a general sense of 2019 being a year of ‘maturing’ for the industry (and perhaps pharmaphorum) in many ways – and maturing means a year with more progress towards delivering better healthcare solutions.

“I remain concerned that the pharma business model is not evolving quickly enough when it comes to digital”

2019 started with me attending the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference for the first time – I will be heading back there in early 2020, so it will be interesting to compare this to my first foray over to San Francisco.

My perception of the event turned out to be much different to the reality, leaving me quite impressed. This wasn’t just about investors, deal making and the ‘who’s who’ of big pharma. This was about the amazing confluence of science, technology and finance. Whatever your critique or scepticism of each of these industries may be, there is no doubt each of them is a critical ingredient in delivering better healthcare solutions, quicker, to patients that really need them.

However, I also agreed with life science investor Bruce Booth that, while recognising the enormous value of JP Morgan as a networking event, the lack of the patient voice at the event was conspicuous. Maybe as a primarily investment-focussed event it’s not the most appropriate place for patients, and you have to question what value they would get from it, but given the sheer number of senior industry executives around it might be smart to think about factoring in some sessions that remind them what their work is really about. Let’s see if the 2020 edition has progressed in that aspect.

In fact, looking back at my columns for this year it’s clear that patients have been a key topic for us at pharmaphorum (and certainly for me personally) – reflecting the industry’s own increasing interest in patient centricity.

Last month, in looking at the next steps for patient centricity in pharma, I noted that the hype had deadened slightly, though I remain optimistic that we are still set to enter something of a golden age of patient engagement. For a look at the reasons why I’d encourage you to read the full article, but in general sustainable win-win business seems to be replacing non-sustainable PR.

In February, whilst attending the Pharma Marketing Forum in Philadelphia, I noted how regulations restricting pharma’s communications with patients might be doing more harm than good by allowing misinformation to spread – and if you look at some of our interviews with both senior leaders and patient advocates from 2019 you’ll see that many of them have similar feelings, citing uncertainty about how exactly regulations apply to patient engagement as a barrier to committing to it.

I said then that it’s time to have sensible debate about what the pharmaceutical industry can and cannot communicate about its medicines to patients and I still believe that now. Perhaps rather than waiting for it to happen I need to seize the day, although I welcome input from others who feel they can help.

There are many other reasons why patient centricity may be hitting a speed bump on its way to becoming ubiquitous in pharma.

As I argued in April, pharma’s slowness in adopting a more patient-centred approach is more down to internal inertia than maliciousness and I put forward some ideas to address this in this article, highlighting the behaviours to avoid.

As 2019 has progressed, I have found myself meeting more people in pharma who are doing the right things (and avoiding the excuses referenced in the above piece), even if it’s not the easy thing or what has always been done, especially as we see more digital natives and innovators from other industries emerging into the senior ranks of the industry.

Meanwhile, industry commentator Hedley Rees’ put the blame more on an  over-obsession with business success (often short-term) at the expense of driving real disruption and improved outcomes for patients – as I discovered when reviewing his book ‘Taming the Big Pharma Monster: by Speaking Truth to Power’, which takes pharma to task for losing its way with patients.

I’ve previously put forward my own thoughts for how a ‘pharma 2.0’ company more focussed on the patient experience and medicines-agnostic solutions might look, and there are certainly signs of progress there.

In fact, the response to that article (a number of investors and other industry veterans got in touch) opened my eyes to some emerging companies that are seeking to deploy the model outlined and I also see an increasing number of ‘innovation’ units within pharma moving towards this approach.

In speaking about innovation I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention digital in all this – after all, it’s often held up as the messiah of patient engagement (and, let’s face it, every other aspect of the industry – for example, see my thoughts on how digital might impact medical meetings in the future).

But it’s also highly misunderstood and its progress hindered or confused by the mass of buzzwords flying around it. So in October I ran through six key aspects of digital health and how businesses can harness them, trying to break down what is a very broad area into meaningful chunks and what they mean for life sciences.

Within this, I do remain concerned that the pharma business model is not evolving quickly enough when it comes to digital.

Part of the problem is the tendency to still treat digital as ‘special’ rather than being an integral part of every other aspect of the business, which is very different to how other sectors, like fast-moving consumer goods, tend to view it and also results in generally lower investment. This also means that the rise of chief digital officers, which in itself is a good thing, will not result in rapid transformation until this cultural change can be made and responsibility for this incredibly broad area delegated further within the business.

Another problem is, quite frankly, the fact that pharma still enjoys healthy profit margins and investor returns compared to many other industries, so the urgency to change isn’t always there.

On the digital health side, this lack of ‘push’ has undoubtedly been precipitated in 2019 but the naysayers rubbing their hands in glee at the challenges facing some of the ‘poster boy’ startups courting pharma, such as Proteus Health facing funding challenges and Pear Therapeutics seeing its partnership with Sandoz discontinued.

However, as with the evolution of patient centricity, I see these as merely hurdles on the bigger journey towards a healthy (forgive the pun) future. My annual visit to Frontiers Health, and role in shaping the event as a member of the Steering Committee, confirmed that digital health is very much alive and well. For sure, such interventions will increasingly face the same scrutiny on medical efficacy, safety and cost-effectiveness as medicines, which will eliminate those without clear business cases or just nice-to-have solutions.

But those that remain will transform healthcare in ways unimaginable, as well as the fortunes of those pharma companies smart enough to see their potential and partner early.

So where will we go from here and what does 2020 have in store?

Here are a few things I predict we will see in the next year

  • More companies integrating patient centricity and experience into all aspects of the business, particularly early development and perhaps some approvals based on non-traditional endpoints more geared around patient-centric, rather than traditional clinical, outcomes
  • A record year for digital health investment, number of partnerships with pharma companies and approvals of digital medicines by regulatory bodies
  • Several other countries following Germany’s lead and providing formal reimbursement pathways for digital health interventions
  • The continued renaissance of the biotech sector, with more approvals, deals and top-level personnel moving from big pharma to these smaller, more nimble medicines developers

Finally, one self-serving prediction that I certainly hope will come true – that the pharmaphorum audience continues to grow, we work with more amazing companies and I get to more amazing events and meet even more inspiring people.

A very warm thanks to all our readers, clients and those others I’ve met who have inspired me this year.

Wishing you all a very Happy Holidays and a very prosperous New Year!

About the author

Paul TunnahDr Paul Tunnah founded pharmaphorum in 2009, which  combines industry leading publications ( with a specialist strategy and content marketing / communications consultancy ( He is a recognised author, speaker and industry advisor on content marketing, communications and digital innovation, having worked with many of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies and the broader ecosystem of healthcare organisations.

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