Injecting the lightning bolt of digital into the relentless ambition of pharma has created a portal into the future, and not a moment too soon

Digital has been waiting for pharma to join the party for a very long time. In the last few years, however, our industry has finally hit the digital dance floor, inviting the production line of constantly evolving technology to help extend, transform and save lives. Since March, digital has also entered all our consciousness in a truly existential way – a way none of us could have predicted. Indeed, if there was anyone left in our industry that hadn’t realised the digital age was upon us, please be assured, they do now.

Zoom with a view

Like in so many industries, digital capabilities have enabled working lives in pharma to continue. In hundreds of labs across the country the focus has shifted to the pandemic, while time-defying manufacturing schedules have dragged the distant future straight into the present.

Meanwhile, for those pharma comrades working from home, digital has made the transition both easier and, at times, stranger. It is why we often wear our dressing gowns to work, it is why we order unnecessary surveillance equipment at 3am (and receive it on the same day), and it is why we know that our sensible colleague, Kevin, has an Iron Maiden poster in his spare bedroom. Mercifully, it is also why pharma has been able to keep the show on the road – figuratively and literally.

While pharma’s kinship with digital is now clearly flourishing, it has involved a long courtship and a degree of scepticism about whether the relationship would actually work. You can, perhaps, understand that initial tension. After all, pharma’s intrepid toil in the laboratory, undertaken over centuries, had always been the boundary-pushing embodiment of ‘the future’ – it needed to size up the disruptive digital upstart, and make absolutely sure it wasn’t just concerned with video games.

After taking time to check out its credentials, pharma’s relationship with digital has become very exciting, very quickly. Alex Brock, European MD of Omnichannel and Digital at Syneos Health, sums it up: “Things have changed rapidly and accelerated dramatically in the last 12 months. But long before that pharma has continuously been playing catch up, because digital is constantly evolving, expanding at a blistering rate and because it isn’t just one thing. But we’re making progress, creating a positive impact and, in many ways, just getting started.”

Getting to second base

Following the awkward silences at the beginning of the century, it now seems that digital is being immersed into every aspect of pharma and wider healthcare, from digitally tracking pharmaceutical supply chains at phenomenal speed to ordering repeat prescriptions. Digital technology has also taken the functionality of laboratories into light speed, driven the functionality of medical equipment, unlocked the hidden meaning behind complicated data and – pivotally, brought order, innovation and salvation to clinical trial processes.

“There’s huge potential for the role of digital in clinical trials,” enthuses Alex. “There will be a point where digital will be able to drastically reduce both the cost and time required to run a trial, resulting in massively positive implications for participating patients and the whole industry.”

Crucially, digital’s emergence in the pharma ecosystem has also recalibrated the relationship between industry and the people it serves, and it is the online ubiquity of the ultra-curious ‘Patient 2.0’ which has triggered much greater cohesion between pharma and digital. Indeed, when it comes to learning about diseases and patient stories, there is a place in cyberspace where all our feelings, darkest moments and sparklets of hope are shared, often to a global audience.

“Social media is a particularly fascinating aspect of digital that has given us a new lens through which to understand conditions,” reflects Alex. “At Syneos Health we have carried out hundreds of projects over the past seven years which focus on ‘social media listening’, using it to explore patient experience and define lexicons to inform engagement activities. This insight is floating around out there and it’s a product of how patients and carers use digital channels to communicate.”

The use of patient data is also gaining traction with the gargantuan rise in the use of wearable technologies, health apps and digital therapeutics, with new swathes of data materialising as each nano second that passes; impossible for the human brain to comprehend, let alone process. The old question of whether enough information is available has, instead, become ‘how on earth do we manage this data and what sense can we make of it?’

Such questions are not to be taken lightly, prompting even the most digitally savvy teams to assume the traditional ‘thinking’ position as big philosophical themes are debated. “Our Applied Data Science team often talks about ’the right data’,” muses Alex. “We begin with a clearly defined question, before identifying what data is needed to provide an answer, rather than trying to gather as much as possible then figuring out what’s meaningful.”

Increasingly, digital tools are allowing healthcare companies to gain a more complete understanding of the patient experience. Although not new, techniques such as mobile ethnography are becoming more and more popular, as companies seek to design services to support patients that don’t just meet needs, but are reflective of the context in which needs are fulfilled. Alex says: “Ultimately, it’s about trying to go deeper in terms of our understanding, beyond what you’d get from an interview or a focus group, which relies on participants recollecting their experience”.

Syneos Health recently followed paradigms of approachability and patients’ individuality by developing a tool which uses behavioural nudges, an informal tone via a ‘conversational interface’ (with emojis!) and reminders to patients during the first few weeks following treatment initiation. It provides another futuristic example of digital facilitating personalised patient engagement.

Spirit of Christmas future

If lockdown had happened 20 years ago, productivity would have been dubious to say the least. We’d have all been playing ‘Snake’ on our Nokias, drinking Sunny Delight and making futile attempts to hold meetings over MSN Messenger. Though the current climate has been testing, and periodically weird, the circumstances have served to test the flexibility and ingenuity of our industry and, as Alex says, it has given the industry a jolt.

“A major benefit for us has been greater flexibility in terms of assembling global project teams from across time zones, pulling in more people as needed, gaining easier access to resources and quickly mobilising subject matter experts,” he adds. “Interestingly, while it may have been possible before, flipping to a 100% remote model has made it a default behaviour.”

Recent months have also highlighted significant opportunities within healthcare around patient adherence. “The intersection of mobile and wearable tech, behavioural science and personalisation stands out as an area where there’s great work going on, but there will surely be bigger breakthroughs,” Alex predicts.

He’s right, there is plenty of room for optimism, as digital is integrated further into the life sciences. Slicker pathways to market will be established, knowledge of diseases (rare and common) will enter a bold new era and, through enhanced communications, pharma’s collaborations will increase exponentially.

In the next five years, industry must surge ahead, making up for lost time, and providing a digital panorama in which trail-blazing therapies can reach their full potential. In the final analysis, pioneering science and digital wizardry are the perfect partners. Both seek definite solutions and clarity of answers, which is why digital must be at the centre of all future medicine development, manufacturing, analysis and even administering.

A year like no other

Digital’s influence on healthcare and pharma may be defined by its central role in navigating humanity out of the current crisis. In many ways ‘digital’ is the natural nemesis of the coronavirus because, like COVID-19, it doesn’t care about your life, it doesn’t care who you are and it doesn’t give a figgy pudding that it’s nearly Christmas. Unlike COVID-19, however, we are able to make digital a force for good; we can make it work unreasonable 24-hour shifts, deconstruct the human condition and propel us out of this nightmare into a life where we aren’t panic-buying tinned ravioli.

The pharma vs COVID-19 bout is already several rounds deep and, so far, we’ve got it on the ropes. The formidable algorithmic objectivity and instantaneous multitasking of digital is starting to gain traction as global data about the disease is furiously gathered, infinitesimal characteristics of the disease are established and – in the race for a vaccine – a decade’s work is carried out in a matter of months. Pharma is getting so close and the world is watching.

Let’s be honest, though, 2020 has been so utterly dreadful that, in time, we may all agree to have it digitally removed, choosing only to remember the halcyon days of 2019 or the raves (legal or otherwise) of 2021. But while 2020 is still here, we may also reflect on a seminal year when digital helped paved the way for pharma to discover a vaccine in record time. Now that would be something to remember.