What's next for digital in pharma?

29 June 2007 was a momentous day for the world – it was the day the first iPhone was released to a rapturous public. It marked the start of a new beginning where digital technologies would infiltrate virtually every aspect of life. Healthcare and pharma have been no exception – indeed, digital technology, from artificial intelligence and wearables to augmented reality and blockchain, is seen to have tremendous transformational potential in a sector often viewed as clunky  and conservative.

And the cogs are slowly turning. Already there is increasing convergence of consumer and medical technologies where a new generation of consumer devices, registered as medical devices, can monitor any number of biomarkers. In 2016, $4.2 billion was invested in digital health; more than double the figure invested in 2015, according to venture  fund Rock Health.

For the industry, it has been slow-going as it tiptoes around regulations and attempts to understand the intricacies of digital. But, according to Duncan Arbour, SVP innovation at Syneos Health Communications, pharma’s progress in the space is accelerating.

“Even ten years ago, it seemed as if many of the teams looking after digital were still learning and for better or worse being led in many ways by their agencies – now it’s far more of a proper partnership, quality’s higher, innovation’s higher and results are better.” In fact, he believes that in terms of digital, particularly in marketing, the industry is “coming of age”.

Coming of age

In recent years there has been a flurry of activity within the industry as many companies ramp up their adoption of digital technologies. Both Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline have created chief digital officer roles; Merck has partnered with Amazon to explore voice-enabled technologies for diabetes patients through Amazon’s digital personal assistant Alexa; Roche acquired the Austrian start-up mySugr, which has a successful diabetes management app that is now part of Roche’s new patient-centred digital health services platform in diabetes care; Teva snapped up Gecko Health Innovations to get its hands on a digitally connected smart inhaler; and numerous companies are tapping into supercomputers and machine learning systems to improve the chances of finding new drug candidates. According to the Pistoia Alliance, 44 percent of the pharma industry is already using or experimenting with artificial intelligence across drug discovery.

The science fiction around digital tech is even making it to the market. In 2015, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the first 3D printed pill; with 3D bioprinting firm Organovo expected to seek FDA approval for 3D printed human tissue as early as 2019. Meanwhile, Otsuka Pharmaceuticals was successful in getting the thumbs up last year for the first pill with a digital ingestion tracking system (read more on p26 – ed).

In terms of social media, Jeff Terkowitz, VP of product at healthcare social network Inspire, notes that pharma is starting to develop new applications for social media as fear around adverse event reporting and communication regulations subside. “Pharma companies are starting to sponsor communities on social media to better support patients. This innovation helps keep pharma at the front of patient minds as the companies engage around various therapeutic areas.”

He points specifically to GSK in its innovative approach to social media, which involves engaging directly with patients but also listening to them and analysing posts. This listening behaviour led GSK to quickly identify a misprinting issue with a syringe and, as a result, was able to quickly resolve the issue. Similarly, the firm is identifying abuse of its medicines through social media listening, which will feed into investigations in how to prevent such situations,  Terkowitz says.

This highlights the importance of data and how that is captured in the new digital world. Says Arbour: “If data is the new oil then the challenge for pharma isn’t going to be in the drilling, it’s going to be in how to pump it effectively into their existing engines.”

What’s next?

So, what’s next for pharma? Firstly, the industry needs to take stock of what is on the horizon and how that might be applied to the sector. According to a recent Syneos Health report, artificial intelligence (AI) should definitely be on pharma’s radar, particularly supercomputers diagnosing diseases (already big moves have been made in the radiology and imaging space), as well as AI-supported messaging apps and chatbots for patient support. Meanwhile, technology could match patients to clinical trials at the point of care, virtual reality could be developed as a new non-drug treatment option, digitally connected nanotechnology could transform drug delivery and diagnosis, and blockchain – the technology behind the digital currency bitcoin – could revolutionise research and the secure sharing of health data.

It could be easy to reject the buzz around new technologies as ‘just another fad’, but Tom Krohn, chief development officer at digital health company Antidote, doesn’t think so. “I think it’s easy to mistake new technologies as a fad until an innovator creates something truly useful and usable from a regulatory perspective,” he says. “From a pharma perspective, the challenge – and opportunity – is to cross the chasm from pilot experimentation of digital capabilities into scaled adoption  and value creation.”      
In many ways, pharma has reached a “tipping point”, as a 2015 report from AT Kearney notes. “Pharmaceutical companies have been increasing their engagement with the digital world slowly and cautiously. But the industry has now reached a tipping point: it has to put an end to hiding behind the challenges of engaging with its stakeholders digitally and stop treating digital as an add-on to existing operations,” the report says. “Rather, it needs to embrace a ‘digital first’ engagement model with fundamental consequences for its organisation and capabilities.”

For Arbour, this next step for pharma is less about the technology and more about the mindset. He singles out Leo Pharma’s Innovation Lab, a separate unit to the company that develops non-pharmaceutical solutions to improve the lives of people with psoriasis. “It’s easy for companies to talk to patient-centricity or value beyond the pill, but to actually get out there and allow your teams to experiment with new models for patient services – and executed to such a high standard – is phenomenal,” he says, adding: “I’m passionate at the moment about the industry’s need to attract  more digital talent, and I’m absolutely convinced that if  more companies followed Leo’s lead and model, we’d be seeing  this talent rush in.”

Competitors or partners?

For other observers, pharma’s next steps are about tapping into the approaches that non-pharma companies are taking. The Medical Futurist, Dr Bertalan Mesko, wrote in a blog post stating that pharma’s traditional ways of motivating patients and healthcare professionals were “obsolete” and called for greater use of gamification to engage these stakeholders, pointing to the 2016 craze Pokémon Go as a case in point. This mobile phone augmented reality game involved thousands of people chasing virtual monsters through their phone while being out and about in the real world. “It got people off the couch and outside, moving. Taking the literal first steps toward a healthier lifestyle,” Mesko writes.

Krohn also emphasises this, noting the growing trend of non-health companies having an impact on the healthcare space. Apple is one with its eye on health records and health data; ride-hailing firm Uber is another, he says, which is launching a programme that brings transportation to patients to remove that as a barrier of accessing care.

Joe Jimenez, the now former chief executive of Novartis, said in an interview with the Financial Times last year that there was a concern these digital start-ups would move in and take over pharma’s traditional relationship with physicians and patients, as well as snapping up all the health data, but he believed pharma still had a role to play. “I do believe that large pharma companies have an advantage, not on the agility side but definitely on what they know about disease states, about patients, about the entire healthcare system, and many of the start-ups don’t have that experience.” He added that these tech firms will become either competitors or partners.

Indeed, according to Arbour this juxtaposition of tech firms and health is stoking the next stage in pharma’s digital evolution. “It’s the realisation that pharma really can’t go it alone, and is accelerating progress through smart acquisitions and partnerships,” he says. “Smart partnerships for digital and data are going to become a board-level priority for smart pharma companies. I’m expecting to see more organisations formalising the way they conduct horizon scanning, getting involved with start-ups or incubating new ideas internally.”

Importantly, this should lead to a future grounded in patient-centricity, where the patient is empowered and an active partner in their healthcare, whether that is being matched to clinical trials online or through digitally connected patient-support programs.

While digital can sometimes still be an island within some organisations, Arbour hopes there is now a shift away from that.

“Hopefully the example being set by companies like Novartis and GSK in bringing in high profile chief digital officers from consumer and retail businesses will inspire others to follow suit and, where digital is still at the margins, bring it closer to the heart”.

Katrina Megget is a freelance journalist speciliasing in the pharmaceutical industry