It’s the start of a glorious new decade for pharma. As the advances in medtech, gadgets and innovation jump into hyperspace, a completely rebooted pharmaverse awaits us. The new era offers the chance to inspire and define, while navigating it will represent the trip of a lifetime

Even the number ‘2020’ dares us to imagine what is possible, and then double it. Raising the bar is something we are used to – one of the first rules you learn in pharma is that the usual rules simply don’t apply. In every other walk of life, the mere mention of the word ‘uncertainty’ drives people to start digging under their houses and hoarding cans of anti-apocalyptic baked beans. Pharma folk, in contrast, gaze across the vast vista of modern healthcare and consider what lies beyond it; what wonderful possibilities might appear in the distance.

It is this seductive ‘uncertainty’ regarding where we could end up that propels our industry into the next dimension. Like a majestic horizon, the extent of our ambitions has no obvious end point and that is why the future for pharma is not clouded with uncertainty – it positively glows with it.

The major reason for a sense of optimism across pharma has been the ability to move away from some of its deep-seated traditions and commit itself to a digital life, and the abundant opportunities therein. Since 2010, the advancement of digital technology has become such a ubiquitous element of pharma culture that using an iPad – released at the dawn of the last decade – is now the very least of our expectations.

Indeed, as we all ease ourselves gently into 2020, we may be more inclined to hope for a 3D printout of some extra brain (specifically, the parts that deal with ambition, motivation and, of course, never having to think about Brexit again). The way medical innovation is going, such an idea doesn’t sound quite as far-fetched as it would have ten years ago.

While we’re gazing into the crystal ball, perhaps now is the best time to reveal our wild and wacky predictions about future healthcare. How about cloud-based human memory backups, drone pills or interactive POV video games, which allow patients to explore their own internal organs (and administer treatment via a virtual Millenium Falcon). Given the current direction of travel, anything is possible, even cough syrup that actually works. Okay, that’s a bit fanciful.

One thing is certain – the new era will be the first in which the influence of digital medicine (delivery, adherence and suitability), wearables, remote treatment and mind-bogglingly nuanced data will reach parity with, or even surpass, more traditional laboratory-based science. What we will witness is a health revolution with a continued emphasis on sophisticated personalised medicine, and the players of the game will be us. In pure health terms, there has never been a better time to be alive!

Sky’s the limit

One of the most notable evolutionary plot points for pharma in recent years has been the rise of partnerships and joint working – from the germ of unconvincing jargon in the early 2000s to the fully-functioning reality of today’s pharma romances (#phromances). In an industry which has been fiercely guarded in the past, the growing cooperation among companies, sectors and industries has felt like a momentous leap for pharma kind. In tandem with the digital era, this willingness to break bread has lit the touchpaper for the very future we are now embarking on.

“Organisations that once went at it alone, are now building intriguing partnerships that traverse the industry and dive deep into innovative technology,” observes Skye Hodson, Asset Strategist and Digital Enthusiast at Syneos Health. “The walls are continuing to come down as groups that once protected their turf embrace teamwork. We’re seeing new models of partnership and competitive collaboration, radical new deployment models and agile ways of working that help everyone experiment and learn together.”

Large cross-industry collaborations – such as the clinical data-sharing initiative – have brought together ten major pharmaceutical leaders, from GSK to AstraZeneca. At the turn of the century, the idea of the big hitters going on a data picnic together and swapping sandwiches would have been unthinkable, but now we are witnessing them working with multiple technology innovators to train drug-discovery algorithms on each other’s data.

It is no coincidence that amid parliamentary bickering about the UK’s healthcare future, the stability and confidence of the pharma industry has been a beacon of fortitude, providing a fresh post-Brexit perspective. It’s as if the new brand of solidarity among companies that were once stanch rivals has given our industry the brio to transcend political turbulence. Reports also indicate that these partnerships represent the fastest route to growth and – critically – change. These partnerships indicate that pharma is becoming a very different animal, with the ability to operate and thrive in different habitats.

One of the most consistent areas of partnership is between big pharmaceutical companies and biotech or DTx (digital therapeutics). Skye explains the key to a successful collaboration: “The major disruption we’re seeing from the clinical research perspective is that investment distribution is funnelling through mid-market and small biotechs, building the pipeline of traditional big pharma. To partner well today, each side requires a clear strategy on what to accomplish, identification of what is already there and what is needed, and clarity around where respective partners can fill in the gaps.”

By developing these partnerships pharma companies are emerging from the shadows and, by absorbing knowledge and cultures, the linguistics of pharma inevitably change – the language becomes open, as common goals are established. This positive cultural shift increases industry visibility and, among the wider public, engenders a much higher level of understanding about exactly what pharma stands for.

Breaking the mould

For a century and more, the formula for getting a pharma product to market was repeated across the board, regardless of the disease, treatment type or company size. The tried and trusted template for success, however, is now toast (or, if you’re a millennial, a severely burnt brioche bun) – there are simply too many variables when it comes to audience, location, data and product type, to rely on a one-size-fits-all approach. The sheer number of stakeholders and partners mean that each campaign and project requires a bespoke, agile and organic strategy.

“The traditional approach to product development, with clinical teams on one side of the regulatory goal posts, and commercial teams on the other, was built for a different era,” says Skye. “What is needed is a fully integrated, insights-driven product development solution that provides companies of all sizes with a powerful combination of asset strategy and execution, from early concept through to commercialisation.”

As the unique chapter of the last decade unfolded, Syneos Health fully embraced the need for highly specialised and strategic planning. Its end-to-end product development methodology places particular emphasis on the necessity to steer campaigns according to very specific criteria. The approach has a particularly high impact for assets with unmet need, such as in oncology or rare and orphan diseases – a stark indication that nuanced strategies have a big future.

Stranger things

The journey into the third decade will also witness the evermore curious and tech-savvy ‘Patient 2.0’ becoming a central character, while health innovation will also seep further into the imagination of innovators outside the usual sphere. The indomitable 1920s caricature of the middle-aged, suit-wearing senior medical expert has already been usurped by a surgence of diversity, inclusion and creativity. A healthcare influencer these days is just as likely to wear skinny jeans or be a fan of grime. These individuals see no distinction between wider consumerism and healthcare consumerism. As the decade progresses this section of society will only grow.

Skye explains the patient’s ascent from bystander to game changer. “We are living in an epoch of rapidly changing life experiences, and they are beginning to trickle into healthcare. Our world is changing faster than ever before, creating an appetite for tech, apps and wearables which drive change, bringing to bear day-to-day consumer expectation, connectivity and insights that promise to transform patient lives.”

Meanwhile, point of care has been steadily shifting away from the relentlessly inconvenient pilgrimage to a clinic, migrating instead to the ultra-convenient virtual terrain which exists wherever and whenever a patient needs it. One of the greatest burdens on the beleaguered NHS is the cost of keeping crumbling buildings going in order to accommodate patients coming through the door – many of whom need to talk to a GP, but would rather have avoided the journey.

China has already adopted entirely digital health services, while the US healthcare system is being challenged by flat-rate pricing structures at Walmart and virtual care experiences by online retail giant, Amazon. “Advances in digital care connections and the growth of new customer segments have opened up entirely new ways to make healthcare more accommodating. These solutions won’t be for every patient, there will be a need to focus on access and equality for all; however, the promise is to free up resources to improve the care for those most in need,” concludes Skye.

And those ‘new ways’ Skye refers to are precisely what we are all striving for, as we advance into the unknown avenues and alleyways of 2020. Needless to say, we are driven by the certain knowledge that making a difference is always tantalisingly within our grasp. In that respect, some things never change.