Could digital technology revolutionise pharma in 2018?

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This year’s eyeforpharma conference in Barcelona outlined how 2018 could be a turning point for the industry. As the industry waits for the next move from tech firms such as Google and Amazon, digital technology also provides unique opportunities for the industry, leading to more efficient trials, new ways to engage with doctors, and create more personalised treatments for patients. Richard Staines was at the conference in Barcelona to find out more.

This year’s eyeforpharma conference began with a challenging speech from Janssen’s EMEA group chairman Kris Sterkens, who outlined the challenges facing the pharma industry.

Sterkens described the uncertainties pharma is tackling – an aging population, the rise of chronic diseases, and intense competition.

Throw in the need for more personalised medicine and the challenges presented by data insights and ownership, and it’s clear that the industry has some choppy waters to navigate in the coming years.

But the need to constantly improve on previous care and the disruptive influence of technology should be seen as an opportunity for pharma.

Sterkens said that expectation is for pharma to be “better than the Beatles” and constantly produce products that improve on very high standards.

The themes highlighted by Sterkens proved to be some of the major talking points of the conference, held in March in Barcelona.

IQVIA’s president of North Europe, Middle East & Africa, Alistair Grenfell continued with the discussion about the need for constant innovation, and spoke passionately about how personalised medicine is changing the way that pharma is conducting R&D.

“As an industry, there are three things we must do much better: more rigorous clinical development, use of industrialized real world evidence and changing the way medicines are launched.”

Like many in the industry Grenfell is a proponent of real world data, and its potential to add value.

Grenfell outlined a recent example of where a competitor was making claims against a rare disease medicine in ophthalmology, which sat across 10 markets. Normally the customer would need to conduct an observational study, potentially taking over one year, and this would have huge cost implications. However, using real world data, the customer was able to counter the competitor’s claims and respond to regulator and pricing authorities in only 12 weeks.

“Real world evidence isn’t just something that is vital for launch. It’s our contention it is vital for survival given the pricing pressures discussed earlier. “

He also addressed the issue of how to communicate with stakeholders using digital technology – IQVIA has developed the concept of orchestrated customer engagement.

“The challenge for the industry is to figure out which are the right channels to the right stakeholders, with the right message – and then orchestrating that.”

Communicating ever more effectively with customers could help to increase industry’s profit margins during these challenging times, where competition is intense, and payers are increasingly focused on pricing.

Patient focus

Getting patients engaged is crucial, as their feedback and insight can give pharma companies a competitive edge during these testing times.

CSL Behring’s CEO, Paul Perreault took to the stage to describe how the Australian company is focusing on the needs of patients. This is vital as governments in the developing world may have other priorities, such as water and sanitation.

But engaging with patients can help pharma companies make a case for their products and services even when doing business in countries without the resources of the large western economies.

Google’s managing director for healthcare, Ryan Olohan, gave little away about the company’s strategy in healthcare but gave some telling insights about how patients are interacting with the search engine to find out more about health.

There are 160 billion health-related searches on google each year and perhaps unsurprisingly, the most common day for searches about depression is Monday, said Olohan.

Around 57% of health searches are on mobiles, indicating the shift towards smaller devices, while in Africa the figure is 80%.

Poor engagement with doctors

In a workshop on engaging with healthcare professionals, IQVIA’s Catarina Serrana gave pharma some food for thought and argued that progress has been slow on this front.

She cited research showing that 43% of US physicians surveyed said that no pharma company is currently providing quality digital support for their day-to-day practice.

Digital resources are often lacklustre, lacking in quality, with navigational issues, with poorly signposted content and too many adverts.

The workshop also heard from infectious disease specialist Israel Molina, who said that many doctors had not heard about clinical trial transparency initiatives from the likes of GlaxoSmithKline and Roche – key components of the industry’s attempt to rebuild trust with physicians following a series of scandals.

Molina told the workshop that all too often pharma companies try to sell when doctors simply want information – a practice that “generates antibodies”.

Could chatbots be the answer?

The theme of customer engagement continued on day two, where delegates heard a keynote address from representatives of IQVIA, who highlighted the growing importance of chatbots to the industry.

IQVIA’s general manager of big data and artificial intelligence Siva Nadarajah predicted that 85% of customer interactions will be conducted by chatbots by 2020.

Like many people, doctors are now happy to interact using mobile phones which make chatbots an ideal solution for pharma to provide them with unbiased medical information, said Nadarajah.

There’s currently a vast amount of effort from tech firms to get chatbots to be compliant with pharma regulations, such as drug safety, he noted.

Machine learning could help transform the way that the industry markets drugs – IQVIA’s statistical expert Agnieszka Wolk said, in a workshop that demonstrated how machine learning and predictive technology could link prescription patterns with marketing decisions and help inform a multichannel strategy.

Artificial Intelligence also proved to be a key theme in the third and final day of the conference – Bahija Jallal, head of AstraZeneca’s MedImmune agreed with IQVIA’s Alistair Grenfell that real world evidence could underpin acceleration of the R&D cycle.

She added that working with tech and lifestyle companies could allow pharma to become more patient centric, ensuring that new innovations are relevant and valuable to society.

This would be a perfect riposte to those who have written off the pharma industry, with the combination of science and technology allowing big leaps in care standards.

Delegates at the conference agreed with Jallal’s assertion that it does not matter whether it is pharma, or a tech company, that is first to innovate.

The most important thing is that the innovation to improve patients’ lives happens – and in a poll vote the audience agreed, saying that pharma should be prepared for multiple experimental joint ventures as a response to the powerful disruptive potential of digital technology.

What’s clear from the conference is that pharma must engage and interact with digital technology – it will be increasingly vital for the industry’s mission to improve patients’ lives with relevant and innovative treatments. But those failing to keep pace could fall by the wayside.

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