What future for pharma in a digital world?

As the industry grapples with the implications of technological changes, Dr Paul Tunnah reflects on a roundtable he recently ran with heads of innovation, communication and digital strategy in pharma

Digital technology has had, and continues to have, an enormous effect on the pharmaceutical industry, as processes and practices within marketing, communications, research and market access are reworked for our digital age.

To explore how digital is impacting – and disrupting – pharma, from the perspective of both the digital customer/consumer and the digitalisation of the product, I was invited to run a live (and now on-demand) video roundtable at the recent Frontiers Health digital health conference in Berlin.

Joining me in Germany was an expert panel of heads of innovation, communication and digital strategy consisting of Oliver Stohlmann from Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer’s John Gordon, Sammeli Liikkanen from Orion Corporation and AstraZeneca’s Roeland van der Heiden.

Digital communications and pharma

‘Digital’ is, of course, very broad in healthcare and can be applied in communications, new ways of diagnosing, patient engagement, technological interventions and many more areas. We started out looking at the way that pharma uses digital to communicate.

Oliver Stohlmann, global head of external innovation communication at Johnson & Johnson, began the session by noting the transition he’s seen in the industry’s use of digital: “Very early on in my career, working as an agency consultant, I remember making the case to big pharma clients for investing in the web when it first emerged, only to hear that a wait-and-see approach was being preferred, since many weren’t sure about this novel phenomenon called a web site!

“Fast-forward to today and communications are much more integrated and digitally-enabled. We have realised in many industries that the way to keep people engaged is to create experiences, dialogue and tell stories.”

It’s an area where some feel our industry still needs to catch up.

Roeland van der Heiden, digital director of corporate affairs at AstraZeneca, said: “The development of new communications platforms is as important for pharma as for society in general, but the industry has lagged behind in its use of them to date.”

A shift in customer engagement

However, medicine is also becoming increasingly more complex, noted John Gordon, head of digital, innovative health in Europe, Japan, Korea, ANZ for Pfizer. He noted that the sheer volume of physicians and payers that need to be communicated with means that we can’t communicate with such a massive group in the same way that we used to.

Now the tone of the conversation is changing. The industry recognises that it’s less about ‘shouting’ at these customers and more about adding value for them, which is a necessary and refreshing shift.

Just looking at it from my own perspective, I started pharmaphorum because one of my passions was social media, as I saw how it connected the conversation within groups of healthcare stakeholders and across them. It was a conversation that I felt it vital – for all – for the pharma industry to be part of. But a good conversation starts with listening, not speaking (as the old phrase goes, ‘you have two ears and one mouth’).

John Gordon commented on how social media listening provides some real benefits for pharmaceutical companies. It’s the first time that they’ve been able to really listen to ‘real world’ conversations on such a scale and without the artificial intervention of traditional market research.

This democratisation of communications by digital channels also opens up direct dialogue with new groups, like patients. Sammeli Liikkanen, chief digital officer at Orion Corporation, reflected on this, noting that “traditional pharmaceutical companies have not been good at communicating with patients. We need to find the right level of communications”.

Beware of the digital buzzwords

There’s a been a lot of talk about patient-centricity in recent years, but I do feel the industry is now finding right level and focus of dialogue. Of course, any mention of patient-centricity, reminds us that it’s easy to get caught up with terms that are ‘in vogue’, without really understanding what they mean, eg multichannel, omnichannel, innovation and so forth.

John Gordon was mindful of how easy it is to jump on the buzzword bandwagon, saying that he is often asked “what are you doing with blockchain or AI?”. He went on to note that looking for potential solutions to solve real patient challenges is what’s important, not starting with the technology and trying to find a use for it.

Sammeli Liikkanen added to this: “We all like shiny new tech, but finding a business use for it is another matter.” He also reminded us to be cautious about the obsession with the word ‘patient’, as he added: “I would like us to understand ‘human-centricity’ not ‘patient-centricity’.”

Where next for pharma?

But where is the real value in digital health for the industry? Looking ahead to the future of digital in pharma, there’s a sense that much of this will come from an acceleration of existing technologies and combinations thereof.

For John Gordon, mobile technology is a massive opportunity to intervene and remains relatively untapped. Then there’s data, which provides so much more opportunities for health interventions at an earlier and earlier stage. The combination of mobile, data and analytics is a powerful formula that could see us delivery truly personalised medicine – and intervention – far beyond the advances in genetically stratified medicines we are seeing right now.

Oliver Stohlmann reflected on this, noting the focus at J&J on creating a ‘world without disease’, where we predict and diagnose illnesses at a much earlier stage, before they become symptomatic, consequently making earlier treatment much more effective. “Our vision is to eliminate disease through better prevention, interception and cures,” he said.

The next 10 years will see many such digital technologies come together and really transform healthcare beyond what we can even envisage right now.

For pharma to remain relevant in this brave new world requires it to change at a far greater pace than it has in the past.

Sammeli Liikkanen succinctly summed it up: “We are valuable [within healthcare]. We have to ensure that we will remain valuable.”

John Gordon expressed a call-to-action for the industry in how to achieve this: “We need to listen more, be inquisitive – for too long we’ve relied upon traditional ways of doing things, now we need to try new things and not be scared of failing.”

Roeland van der Heiden reminded us of the value of connectivity: “We need to be social companies. Pharma has a special responsibility and we need to be more social about how we tell people about this.”

Oliver Stohlmann provided the final word, concluding that

“there’s so much to do for people who are ill, and those many more who don’t even know what diseases they may be incubating. Pharma’s business model is changing and there are opportunities to work in very different ways. The healthcare industry is uniquely connected and in a strong position to lead the transformation of today’s ‘disease care’ to genuine healthcare”.

The future

So what future for pharma in a digital world?

Technology can help with all kinds of healthcare challenges and will undoubtedly help us transform from treating disease to preventing disease, but we still urgently need better medicines in many areas.

We need pharma to adapt, not die. Based on this discussion, the signs are positive that it’s moving in the right direction.

The full one hour on-demand video panel, which was recorded and live-streamed by Streaming Well, can be accessed via pharmaphorum.com

About the author

Dr Paul Tunnah is pharmaphorum’s CEO. He founded pharmaphorum in 2009 and is a respected expert in healthcare social media and content-based engagement.

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