Tunnah’s musings: When does pharma innovation really need to start?

After chairing the first day of Pharma Engagement Live, Paul Tunnah muses on the changing commercial models within pharma and asks when innovation really needs to start in order to help transform the pharmaceutical industry.

I’m a firm believer in the notion that pharma companies need to significantly change the way they engage in the healthcare space. We all know the reasons why; the increasing influence of multiple stakeholders, as payers and patients hold equal sway with prescribers, and ever more focus on outcomes in the real world that challenge the old proposition of good clinical data being enough to guarantee success for new medicines.

So we see increasing use of terminology such as ‘patient-centricity’, ‘market access’ and ‘closed-loop marketing’, designed to reinforce the argument that the industry is adapting what it does, is more focused on its customers (all of them) and is no longer ‘pushing’ messages out to market, but is now truly engaging in two-way constructive dialogue designed to deliver the information healthcare stakeholders really need.

“As an industry, we focus a lot (and I mean a LOT) on innovation in the commercial side of the business”

Chairing the first day of Pharma Engagement Live last week, these terms were found in abundance but, in fairness, were being challenged as simply buzz words. Questions were asked around what they really meant for pharma and whether change was actually happening. In a diverse array of presentations, some of the ideas focused on more ‘traditional’ areas, such as multichannel marketing to physicians and the associated evolution of key performance indicators, but a number of much broader aspects were covered, including:

• What real patient-centricity looks like – re-engineering every process within pharma, from early research, to ensure that the patient voice is included in product development and commercialisation

• True ‘beyond the pill’ focus from pharma – understanding market need and developing healthcare services to meet that need, whether they involve medicines or not

• The evolution of the medical congress and how it is becoming increasingly virtual, with implications for the pharma industry

• Whether pharma should be involved in mHealth – the increasing use of mobile technology to monitor our health and support intervention

At this point, you could be forgiven for thinking ‘so what, you’ve covered these topics before and none of them is new’, but there is an interesting new aspect that occurred to me and one that connects all these themes.

As an industry, we focus a lot (and I mean a LOT) on innovation in the commercial side of the business. External commentators, including me, are forever harping on about better engagement with customers, using new digital and social media channels and building broader services around the medicines that can help deliver the right outcomes.

“If pharma wants to truly innovate it needs to start much earlier, way back in early development”

But here’s the problem.

If pharma wants to truly innovate it needs to start much earlier, way back in early development. By the time a new drug has reached the market, no amount of smart digital initiatives, clever advertising or patient advocacy is going to have a significant impact – the product either meets the needs of the market or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, then the value associated with it by those setting the health budgets is going to be pretty low. End of story.

So my point is this: all this great innovation in commercial models needs to be supported by equally great innovation in the R&D process. I’m not talking about better, smarter ways of developing new drugs alone (much of which is already happening), but more about integrating the broader market-focused alignment with delivering services, as well as products, that can bring disease management into the earliest research.

Pharma companies need to be taking beyond-the-pill thinking into those early-stage laboratories that are currently focused exclusively on the pill.

Let me leave you with an analogy that I hope illustrates my point. Twenty years ago Google was predominantly known for being a search engine and being very successful at it. Had it focused its innovation purely on the commercial side it would, arguably, still be very successful, but would also still be a search engine, with services (like advertising) built around this.

“Google is getting into healthcare, completely unhindered by the idea that the right solution needs to start with a pill”


But instead, Google invested heavily in understanding what else its users wanted and structured its research and development around this. Today, it offers all kinds of software (email, analytics, web surfing, maps etc.) and hardware (Google Glass, Google self-driving cars etc.) products and services. Now, Google is getting into healthcare, completely unhindered by the idea that the right solution needs to start with a pill.

I believe the successful pharma companies of the future can learn from this. They know it’s about more than medicines and are starting early in adapting their business – not just in time, but in structure.

Until next month, whether you work in early R&D or front-end sales, be innovative and stay well.

About the author:

Paul Tunnah is CEO & Founder of pharmaphorum media, which facilitates productive engagement for pharma, bringing healthcare together to drive medical innovation. It combines industry-leading content and social media engagement services with the globally recognised news, information and insight portal pharmaphorum.com, working with pharmaceutical companies, service providers and broader healthcare organisations to help communicate their thought leadership and connect them with relevant stakeholders.

For queries he can be reached through the site contact form or on Twitter @pharmaphorum.

Have your say: Is pharma R&D innovation broad enough?

Read more Musings from Paul Tunnah:

Taking the medical congress beyond the medic