Why Aren’t We Connecting?
Digital technology is all around us, but pharma isn’t quite getting it right… yet.
Healthcare today is largely disconnected, particularly when it comes to pharma’s involvement. Only a tiny percentage of the potential information and relevant data that can be collected about patients is collected – and until pharma companies start collecting and harnessing this data, they will continue to live in a world of ignorance. As an example, consider this; a pharma company spends nearly $2 billion and takes over ten years to develop an innovative drug to treat an unmet medical need, which subsequently receives regulatory approval and reimbursement. The physician writes a prescription which passes through the system, but the only data that goes back to the practitioner, pharma company, or anybody else in the healthcare system, is whether the patient picked up their prescription. There is no information about whether the patient actually took the drug correctly and for the full term (unlikely), whether it worked, or whether it had side effects (with the exception of extreme cases). If more data could be collected, it would shed a lot of light on how the product and patient experience can be further improved, which should, in turn, improve patient adherence and outcomes.
In consumer industries, digital technology has created an immense feedback loop through connectivity that leads to iterative improvement in products and services, as well as personalization. In pharma and healthcare, the industry has been slow to lay the foundations to leverage real-world data that will drive iterative product improvement and customization. Starting with healthy consumers, pharma companies should be asking how they can use digital technology – perhaps through apps or wearable devices – that encourage people to make better lifestyle choices that improve health and potentially help fend off disease, or slow disease. For patients managing a disease, there is a tremendous amount of value in using digital technology to provide information about what really is happening at the individual patient level in real time. For example, a diabetes or COPD patient may see their doctor every three or six months to check their health status and adjust their medications, but it should be possible to remotely monitor health and adjust the dosage continuously with technologies available today. This is an area that we are exploring with technology such as connected combination products integrated with smart algorithms.
I often compare pharma’s digitization journey to that of the automotive industry. For starters, both have long product development cycles. The car industry takes about seven years from development to a brand new car coming to market. Similarly, it takes pharma companies about ten to fifteen years to develop a new drug. Secondly, both the pharma and car industries are extremely regulated because safety is on the line. Thirdly, the industries have both been dominated by large, established companies who have huge influence and control where resources are spent, both in the industry and in industries that support it.
The automotive industry began to “embrace” digital years ago, but this mainly equated to simple measures like adding a siloed GPS to new cars. However, introducing a new digital feature does not mean that the technology was implemented corrected. Surveys have shown that barely anyone uses the GPS that comes with their car for a variety of reasons – the biggest being that they were built with the same long product development lifecycle as the car and, hence, the user experience and interface were not only outdated and inferior, but did not go through the iterative product development that software products typically do.
In recent years, the automotive industry has upped its game. When buying a car, users would traditionally focus on raw horse power and the stereo system, but now it’s all about the car’s software – how it integrates with your mobile phone, music systems and more. In fact, when designing and building a car today, the investment has shifted from almost 100 percent hardware to around 50/50 hardware/software parity. The catalyst behind this transition from developing discrete products to connected systems has a lot to do with outside innovators that are disrupting the traditional automotive incumbents. The industry saw new models – such as Uber and Lyft – and new connected cars with growing autonomous features – such as Tesla and Alphabet’s Waymo – and began investing in digital more seriously.
In my view, the same parallels exist for the pharma industry. The industry has put one foot into digital health by introducing incremental solutions such as using technology to improve patient enrolment in clinical trials, or by rolling out a companion app (most of which are very dull and are, in turn, not downloaded by patients). To succeed in deploying digital health solutions, pharma must think about how to do better. There are a few key principles that pharma companies can think about to accelerate their digital innovation efforts:
- Pharma has to embrace the concept of a minimum viable product and the fast-paced nature of technology innovation. Unlike traditional pharma product development, the first product – such as version 1.0 of an app – will be the worst version. But once you deploy an app, you can continue to rapidly improve it based on user engagement analytics and add more robust features.
- The industry needs to develop ecosystems as opposed to silos. Similar to the automotive example discussed earlier, patients will demand apps that integrate with connected devices and are contextualized with data about them and their lifestyles. In many cases, patients may be using drugs and devices from different companies for different conditions – do they really want an app for each one of these? Developing one-off solutions that don’t integrate with other systems, such as electronic medical records, won’t be successful.
- Companies should invest in developing truly unique digital health solutions, such as smart algorithms that can auto-titrate drugs or control connected medical devices to enable improved adherence or outcomes. We come across a lot of companies investing in building the underlying platform infrastructure to manage and analyze real-world data, but that’s not where the true differentiation will stem from for a pharma company. Companies shouldn’t be building infrastructure that will just create another silo (at best).
As with the automotive industry, we are seeing tech companies and startups begin to disrupt the pharma industry. The time is now for pharma companies to hit the accelerator in terms of their digital health efforts. There is too much at stake for patients and their shareholders not to move forward quickly.
Kal Patel is MD, Senior Vice President of Digital Health for Flex.