Digital pharma update: loves me, loves me not?

In her latest article, Denise Silber, founder of Doctors 2.0 & You conference, a pharmaphorum partner, explores the world of digital pharma and how this area has advanced since she last wrote for pharmaphorum. She looks at industry trends and incorporates comments from two of her fellow digital health pioneers based in Europe, Dr Vincent Varlet (Novartis) and John Pugh (Boehringer-Ingelheim).

In March of 2012, I wrote a letter to a hypothetical new pharma CEO named Jane, concerning the pharma industry’s position with regard to digital. In the letter, she recommended that pharma close the gap in its digital coming of age and that the CEO would be wise to encourage all of her managers to immerse themselves in digital culture and get involved.

What has happened since then? It depends on what you measure.

Lack of digital talent in big industry, including pharma

In the past few years, several recognized digital talents from pharma companies have struck out on their own, finding it more attractive to advise pharma and others about digital innovation, than to remain within the industry. Fortune 500 managers recognize that industry is not investing significantly in internal digital capabilities. A survey of Fortune 500 managers from all industries in 2013 concluded that the talent issue is not specific to any one industry. In-house digital talent is considered to be lacking in almost every big company!

“…digital tools that bring value to patients are successful.”

Digital pharma has advanced

Yes there have been some advances for pharma. Major international pharma data analysts now report on pharma activity on social media as part of their regular activity. Contests award prizes to compelling digital programs, whether for professionals or consumers. Digital pharma exists.

John Pugh notes that “the past two years has seen pharma companies realising that digital is not a stand-alone set of activities; it needs to be integrated into a multi-channel approach. We have also seen a rationalisation of digital services, with a decoupling of technical / creative aspects of web build, globalised services and more standardised offerings. Vincent Varlet says that “digital tools that bring value to patients are successful”.

But good execution must be based on a relevant strategy and most pharma companies are struggling with the concept of digital strategy. What does it embrace? Who should define it in their structure? How does pharma get beyond pilot projects?

Use of digital by consumers and professionals in Europe is close to the US level and higher in certain countries. Yet pharma promotional spending on digital is ten times higher in the US than in Europe, according to CEGEDIM Promotion data 2012.

Self-imposed pharma barriers

Dr Vincent Varlet echoes a familiar observation. “Self-imposed pharma barriers limit pharma’s options. Managers cite regulatory reasons, if not ROI.”Yet, in Vincent’s experience, “regulatory considerations regarding use of digital tools and social media can be successfully managed and we can demonstrate the usefulness of digital investment.”

Competition in digital health from outside pharma

Struck by the quality of independent professional and patient initiatives, Vincent Varlet observes that “Patients and professionals are not waiting for pharma. They can compare what pharma produces and see that it is less innovative than what they need or are, in some cases, doing without us.” John Pugh noted at SXSW, an event which is not specific to healthcare, that “many tech companies are looking to innovate in healthcare.” He also sees a strategic shift for pharma as “some pharma companies make investments into adjacent businesses.”

“The general digital landscape in the past two years has become increasingly diversified and complex.”

Digital influence and complexity is growing

Should pharma CEO’s address these issues about digital? Here is the evidence.

Digital’s influence on the world and the financial weight of its companies has grown and continues to do so. The general digital landscape in the past two years has become increasingly diversified and complex. There are more categories of digital tools and new players.

Pharma, a data-rich industry, needs to communicate innovatively. Web infographics have become a standard for presenting key data messages. Use of photos and videos is exploding. Instagram is used for health stories. Short and very short form videos have become a new medium. Google HangOuts are facilitating interactive video interviews and group discussions as well as expert advice sessions.

eReputation has become a standard tool for big businesses and is indispensable for the proper understanding of medicines.

Social media and mobile applications are ubiquitous. These and other digital platforms can benefit pharma’s CRM tools by providing detailed insights into healthcare professionals’ and patients’ areas of interest, enabling much greater personalization. Univadis the respected physician portal, is an international example of such potential on the physician side. The French subsidiary has recently launched a healthcare professional community geared toward dialogue.

“Social media and mobile applications are ubiquitous.”

Gaming has gone mainstream whether on consoles, computers, smartphones. Gaming and simulation techniques need to be integrated into informational and educational tools to ensure greater long-term use.

The first international Quantified Self conference took place in 2011. Today measuring an activity through a tracker is commonplace, and health and wellness are a major part of Quantified Self.

Digitizing pre-existing activities, such as visual aids and clinical trials should not keep pharma from discovering new activities. The practice of medicine can change radically under the impact of wearable sensors and portable diagnostic accessories. Pharma could be leading this revolution. There are untapped opportunities to provide unique services to patients and physicians, using digital tools. For John Pugh, “there is a gap in understanding right now between the tech companies and pharma,” but he expects this to be filled as they find ways to cooperate.

At a minimum, a manager needs hands on experience to understand and follow how these tools apply to his or her clients and partners with respect to their needs and not just industry’s needs to communicate.

Pharma traditionally was a major purveyor of public health information for professionals and patients via the physician’s office, thanks to the unique field force channel. While the physician’s office remains a strategic location, information services are distributed online and others (insurors, hospitals, government, publishers and not for profits) can address unmet needs of professionals and patients.

“Being “digital” is not an end in itself but a means to collaborate and share data with the multiple stakeholders that compose healthcare.”

How can an innovation-based industry like pharma not be at the forefront of these developments? Being “digital” is not an end in itself but a means to collaborate and share data with the multiple stakeholders that compose healthcare.

John Pugh reminds us that “The recent shift is towards a more customer centric perspective. Less push, more pull. At Boehringer Ingelheim we are incorporating this into our social strategy: trying to identify and reach target customers with information they identify as valuable”. And Vincent Varlet agrees, “any tool that directly or indirectly brings value to the patient must be at the heart of what we in pharma seek to do.”

Visit for more details of this year’s Doctors 2.0 & You conference in June.


About the author:

An American in Paris, and former pharmaceutical manager, Denise has been an eHealth opinion leader since 1995, directing the creation of the first leading medical web sites in France while at the communications agency she had founded in Paris in 1991. Denise subsequently sold that company and returned to work on eHealth in the US. In 2001, back in Paris, Denise Silber launched Basil Strategies, eMarketing, Web 2.0, and Social Media consultancy with an events and training activity as well. Basil Strategies are founders of Doctors 2.0 ™ & You, outstanding international congress on health care and social media, European sister conference to Stanford Medicine X. In 2011, Denise was decorated by the French Legion of Honor in recognition of her trans-Atlantic work in eHealth.

A Harvard MBA, Denise is President of the association, PharMBA. organizing international speaker events and of AQIS, the association for the Quality of Health Internet Sites In France. She can be found in English and French on her blog,

Visit for more details of this year’s Doctors 2.0 & You conference.

Have your say: How has digital pharma advanced over the past two years?