Digital health is transforming the way that we approach healthcare, but how can companies make the most of this new multi-channel engagement model? Dr Paul Tunnah sits down with a panel of experts at the 2021 Frontiers Health conference to learn more about innovation opportunities in the sector.
There are very few instances where an entire industry is forced to reimagine its primary working model almost overnight. For healthcare, the arrival of Covid-19 was one such event.
Confronted with the realities of operating amid a rapidly evolving pandemic, healthcare companies had to re-evaluate the role of technology in medicine.
What followed was a flurry of activity in the digital space. Having been pushed to the side of future industry planning, smaller tech start-ups became a hot commodity for larger healthcare operations. Building on the initial progress made before the first outbreak of Covid-19, healthcare organisations were able to quickly accommodate the sudden loss of physical contact and communication.
Bolstered by a wealth of evidence that digital technology can be a valuable tool for patients and practitioners, attention has turned to the challenge of building a sustainable healthcare model beyond the bubble of Covid-19.
Speaking at the 2021 Frontiers Health conference in Milan, a panel of experts including global head of digital transformation & innovation execution at Novartis, Christian Hein, vice-president business strategy & commercial excellence for Boston Scientific EMEA Rodamni Peppa, Lundbeck vice-president digital & head of global customer engagement Danilo Pagano and Pfizer global head of digital marketing and digital health CoE John Gordon, gathered to discuss the opportunities and challenges of bringing digital health tools to the masses.
There is no doubt that Covid-19 accelerated the adoption of technology. In the decade prior, the sector was widely viewed as a fringe, more experimental and unproven, element of healthcare. While the idea of a multi-channel engagement model was touted as the future of healthcare, there were few real-life examples that demonstrated the transformative potential this approach could have on the industry.
“Digital transformation is really the broader transformative event that can affect every single corner of the company,” explains Pagano. “It is affecting the R&D, product development, supply chains, and corporate functions.”
For those at the heart of the healthcare industry, digital became a lifeline. A wealth of software, digital tools and technologies bridged the communication gaps created by the pandemic, allowing researchers, patients and stakeholders to connect when face-to-face contact was suddenly impossible.
“For industries like ours that are constantly in the lab, not being able to be in the lab meant patients at risk and procedures breaking down,” says Peppa. “From day one, we just had to roll up our sleeves. There’s nothing better for creativity than urgency.”
For the companies charged with developing vital treatments to combat the health risks associated with Covid-19, having a foundation of technology proved to be invaluable.
“A lot of the digital transformation was happening in the clinical trial space, which allowed us to really accelerate the way that we took on the vaccine development,” explains Gordon. “There were many different ways that digital was applied to the way that trial was run, which allowed us to bring a product to market much quicker.”
One of the most important elements to emerge throughout the early stages of the pandemic was data. With labs and hospitals off-limits to patients and practitioners, information about patients and products had to be garnered from outside the clinical setting. The result was a flurry of real-world evidence that digital innovators could use to inform patient treatment decisions, clinical trial processes, and even the success of future drug research.
However, while this shift towards data-driven healthcare looked like a step in the right direction, it quickly became apparent that not all data is created equal. Without a set standard for data quality, healthcare services cannot provide consistency for patients and clients across the field.
“That fragmentation is such a strong inhibitor to anything that could have a widespread impact from a digital health solution, because you wouldn’t know where to start implementing it,” explains Peppa.
Addressing the issue of fragmentation will likely be a core concern for stakeholders looking to industrialise digital health post-pandemic.
“We’ve got to bring the same rigour that we bring to the development of drugs to the development of digital health products,” says Gordon. “We have to look at interoperability and how these digital health products can be introduced into the healthcare professional workflow at scale.”
Improving efficiency and efficacy is an attractive draw for companies in the healthcare space. However, finding ways to improve the value-for-money of software has proven to be a challenge.
“We know in the pharma industry how to sell pills and therapies, in the medical device industry we know how to sell devices, but how do you fit software as a service in a diagnosis-related group reimbursement system?” asks Peppa.
“New business models are always challenging,” agrees Hein. “I believe that digital health solutions, especially if you embed them early in the clinical development, will become part of your drug package.”
Of course, aligning the vision of a multi-channel healthcare model with the realities of implementing one at scale is an enormous challenge. One of the main issues is that the industry involves a wide array of customers, each with a varying level of technological understanding, who will ultimately come into contact with digital health services.
“The problem is always people and upskilling people,” says Peppa. “It’s surprising the way that AI, big data and simple digital gadgets could unleash potential within the company. We need to teach our teams to ask the right questions of where digital can help.”
Specialised digital teams have become more commonplace in healthcare, which is a positive sign that the industry is set to continue developing these offerings. But, to truly harness the full potential of digital across all levels of the industry, companies will have to invest time and money into educating and upskilling employees.
Peppa continues, “You see the experts of digital starting to pop up in the shape of departments and teams, but until every single department is, capability-wise, built up to know what to ask from the experts, that’s going to be a difficult curve.”
While Covid-19 may have accelerated the desire to develop and adopt digital technologies, Hein is quick to highlight one significant hurdle that the broader industry must address if this progress continues – the fax machine.
“What other industry in the world is still using fax?” he asks. “It’s being used for every doctor’s office; for communicating covid cases on a daily basis.
“If that is your base for where you take some of your key partners in the industry, then we still have a long way to go.”
There is no doubt that digital health is here to stay. But, beyond the time and money-saving appeal of technologies, one area that excites the panel members is the opportunity digital health gives providers to put patients back at the centre of healthcare.
For Hein, the clinical trial space is a notable example of this. “Speed is important, but I think the other really important element of digitising clinical trials is to make them more patient-centric,” he says. “I think it’s going to be a fundamental change in terms of how we can get more patients into this development journey, which is ultimately going to benefit all patients beyond the clinical trial space as well.”
Beyond the clinical trial space, digitising healthcare systems is also facilitating innovation in patient-specific treatment. Now, with a foundation of technology in place, the potential of personalised patient treatment is slowly becoming a reality.
“Providing personalised patient care should not be a dream anymore; it should be that specific”, says Peppa. “Technology allows us to make it specific. It’s exciting that now this is going to happen.”
While the pandemic may have accelerated the pursuit of a patient-centric, technology-driven future of healthcare, experts are under no illusion that reaching that goal will be a challenge.
“It is very hard to innovate within a big company that has certain structures and processes, and that is as regulated as the pharma industry is,” explains Hein.
What is clear, however, is that there is no returning to the pre-pandemic model.
“The pandemic has shone a light on the opportunities that digital technology offers in healthcare. We just need to use that as a foundation to move forwards,” concludes Gordon.
Dr. Paul Tunnah, chief content officer and managing director UK, Healthware Group (moderator)
John Gordon, global head of digital marketing & digital health CoE, Pfizer
Christian Hein, global head of digital transformation & innovation execution, Novartis
Danilo Pagano, vice president digital & head of global customer engagement, Lundbeck
Rodamni Peppa, vice president business strategy & commercial excellence, Boston Scientific