Digital: capturing more of the healthcare ecosystem

How well are pharma companies adapting to the digital age? Susan Macdonald speaks to three experts in the field about what they see as the challenges and opportunities.

Susan Macdonald

In this digital age, people expect healthcare products and treatments to be accessible whenever and wherever they are wanted or needed, in the same way as consumable products. This paradigm shift brings both challenges and opportunities for life sciences companies.

The real opportunity lies not with tactical tweaks, but with the companies that are truly looking to deliver value-added services and aiming to put the patient at the centre of their activities. Pharma companies generally acknowledge and agree that it is both necessary and financially and morally right. However, putting this into practice is complex, costly and time consuming, and requires new behaviour from all stakeholders.

So how well are life sciences companies adopting new technologies and what can be learnt from other industries? I asked Fonny Schenck, CEO of Across Health, Marc Sluijs, a digital health investment adviser, and Craig Le Grice, a cross-industry corporate strategist specialising in digital technology and transformational change, for their views.

Sluijs says that there are significant opportunities for pharma companies that can extend beyond the pill to impact and improve patients’ behaviour and, in turn, their lifestyles. This could result in better health outcomes and, critically, robust data to support and justify why the approaches and product(s) of these companies are best.

Medication not the only solution

He believes companies need to recognise that chronic diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity are one of the biggest issues today, and that for a number of these, medication is not the only solution. “If life sciences companies continue to focus on purely providing drugs, then they are only capturing a small part of the healthcare ecosystem and should instead be looking at the opportunities new technologies offer to extend up- and downstream to capture and influence a much greater share of healthcare,” he says.

Schenck added, “If life sciences companies do not extend their go-to-market models, then they will find their product markets shrinking as entrants from other industries focus on lifelong prevention rather than cure.” This is centred around two very short periods in life only: the first-six-months and last-year-of-life segments. “Life sciences is a highly profitable industry that has had, until now, high barriers to entry, and so there needs to be a reason to change.”

A 2013 report by Capgemini showed that digital leaders outperformed their peers in every industry. The same report detailed pharma as being less mature than other industries, although it noted that “many are building capabilities in analytics and worker enablement, but most firms are just beginning their digital journeys, leaving many opportunities untapped.”

Fast-forward two years and Across Health’s seventh annual survey on digital maturity in life sciences shows that, for the vast majority of life sciences companies, little has changed: “Satisfaction with digital is low, therefore budgets do not increase, which, in turn, leads to suboptimal programmes with limited impact and back to lower satisfaction…creating a plateau of unproductivity.”

However, the report noted a speeding up in the market, stating that around 14% are implementing multichannel quickly, spending significantly more than average, and feeling comfortable with impact measurement.

Le Grice believes technology is bringing the opportunity to have “everything we’ve ever wanted in terms of consumer/end-user engagement.

“For years, marketers have desired one-on-one connections with consumers, but have been held back by the logistics. Big pharma has dreamed of a ‘one product, many applications’ scenario for key care areas. Research has yearned for [non-drug] test bases in the millions, not hundreds. Technology, digital transformation, and data bring all of these a step closer.”

Learning from other industries

Sluijs suggests lessons could be learned from the gaming industry, which has developed sophisticated approaches to engaging people in virtual activities that could be leveraged in life sciences. While many think the technology sector could offer answers, he points out that technology is an enabler, not necessarily the solution. The challenge is to work out how to influence consumer behaviour and change habits that negatively impact health.

This is where technology can help, with tracking/monitoring devices enabling the collection of data on people’s behaviour and, ultimately, on the impact on their health. Then specialists, data scientists and clinical psychologists can establish drivers of behaviour and develop the algorithms to remind, reward, or motivate changes at an individual level.

This is not something new. UK supermarket Tesco led consumer retail tracking of consumer behaviour through the introduction of its Clubcard in the 1990s. This allowed it to record consumer purchases and subsequently segment marketing activities based on purchasing behaviour. Imagine the data sets we would have now if we had had the capability and regulatory environment to capture healthcare behavioural data when Tesco started these activities more than 20 years ago.

Le Grice likes the nod to the retail sector, primarily because it serves millions, while having to adapt to individual needs too. These are often very specific needs, led by desire – one of the hardest areas of consumer ‘want’ with which to match products.

He also points to the parallels with the financial services sector as being of interest for life sciences companies. Like pharma it is heavily regulated and has similar business structures, often offering major ‘brand attractors’ as loss leaders in order to build relationships and trust (such as current accounts for banks and over-the-counter drugs for life sciences). The thinking behind this is that customers will invest in ‘life stage-specific’ products later (such as mortgages for banks and long-term care programmes for life sciences). The opportunity provided by technology, such as wearables, should be focused on gathering intelligence and insight, which would allow companies to close the gap between the two. Le Grice believes this is a win-win scenario – good for business and good for patients.

Today, it is encouraging that a number of life sciences companies are beginning to catch up with other industries in their digital implementation, shifting some of their offline activities

to online and adding digital to this mix, as well as shaping, organising, and resourcing around digital. However, these shifts are mainly incremental and still primarily product focused.

Interestingly the pharma companies making the strongest inroads appear to be those that have had, or are approaching, major patent expiry, including AbbVie, AstraZeneca, Lilly, MSD and Pfizer.

First digital NDA

Many are watching to see the outcome of Otsuka’s partnership with Proteus Health and their submission to the US FDA of the first digital medicine New Drug Application. The technology embeds a sensor in a tablet to digitally record ingestion and, with patients’ consent, share that information with their healthcare providers. If approved and shown to have a positive impact on patient adherence, will this open the floodgates for digital medicines?

The coming year looks positive, with technologies that allow things to happen on a much bigger and more feasible scale and can be replicated and complemented with automated processes. Schenck believes creating and building intelligent data repositories will really assist companies in optimising their channel mix and digital strategies, improving their customer models and cost-effectiveness. Sluijs, meanwhile, considers the fact that we can now have a much more complete picture of health, which goes beyond clinical values and biometric data and gives companies far greater insight into patients’ moods, social activities, and overall well-being, presents a huge opportunity.

Clearly, new skill sets and knowledge are required to devise and deliver digital strategies. Are you and your senior teams ready to leverage these changes for maximum opportunity?

About the author:

Susan Macdonald is founder and director at Macdonald Lewis Associates (MLA), a boutique life sciences resourcing company set up in 2016.

A nursing graduate, Susan spent 17 years in commercial business development and project management roles for both ethical and generic pharmaceutical companies. She then spent 10 years working for a specialist life sciences executive search company, living in Europe and Asia where she managed their JV in China then their Asia operation from Singapore, before returning to the UK to manage key global client relationships and undertaking global, regional and country level senior executive searches.

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