Digital health and pharma – adapting to the post-coronavirus paradigm

The need for digital transformation and a response model for COVID-19 were among the topics discussed in a recent digital debate

The coronavirus pandemic has brought about a digital-first transformation as society adapts to life during COVID-19. For life science companies the evolving paradigm offers many digital health opportunities.

A recent pharmaphorum webinar examined the ways that health technology can be used to develop public utility projects and enhance healthcare communications, and how the current health emergency has made the pharmaceutical industry’s ongoing need for digital transformation even more pressing.

The 10 years in 10 days: the new global digital health paradigm in life sciences webinar, held in association with Healthware Group, also proposed a response model for COVID-19 and addressed the deep transformation of marketing, customer engagement and adaptation of business processes.

Opening the webinar, Healthware’s CEO Roberto Ascione noted: “Digital transformation in the COVID-19 age is a disruptor for our industry. Of course, this has been first and foremost a human crisis, but the word ‘crisis’ comes from the ancient Greek meaning ‘change’, and there are also opportunities that we can catch.”

Preparing for, and adapting to, the new normal

The coronavirus has already had a huge impact on how all companies from all sectors are operating and engaging with their stakeholders, in the process accelerating uptake of a variety of digital technologies – and the healthcare industry is no exception.

“We’ve seen digital health leapfrogging ahead before our very eyes,” said Ascione. “There’s already been a big uptake in certain kinds of technologies – they were already ramping up, but not at the pace that we are now observing.”

One consequence of this is that “customer value, especially to physicians, is profoundly changing”, particularly with respect to education for healthcare professionals (HCPs). This remains an ongoing need as medical knowledge develops and evolves.

“Healthcare professionals will still need to learn, will still need to access medical education and scientific content, but events have been drastically reduced,” he said. Since early March 2020 some of medicine’s best-known scientific congresses and annual meetings have been cancelled, postponed or, increasingly, moved to an all-digital format.

Healthcare services too face huge disruption, with reduced access to care a common issue in countries that have been put into lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19. This access will continue to be a problem even when countries leave lockdown as healthcare services work to catch-up with delayed operations, examinations and appointments.

Ascione said: “Telemedicine, digital health, homecare, will all become regular to healthcare professionals, but there is a massive gap in understanding of these tools and how to relate to patients under this new situation.

“During this very important time frame, we believe customer value will be found in providing services that are useful in the context of COVID-19 and the aftermath of the disease’s peak.”

The new normal for pharma

For the pharmaceutical industry the gradual emergence of a ‘new normal’ across healthcare as countries exit the emergency phase of the COVID-19 pandemic will come with some important considerations for all companies. One of these will be their need to accelerate digital transformation.

“While digital transformation in our industry has been with us for years, typically it has been a medium-term project that progresses slowly,” said Ascione. “But now, of course, under the current pressures we’ll see this accelerate.”

He suggested that, while digital transformation projects may continue to be bodies of work to be completed over the medium-term, “we believe it’s very important to have an immediate perspective as well”.

For pharmaceutical marketing, one consideration that companies are grappling with is how, and when, brand activities can start to return to normal. Looking to this next phase of the pandemic, Ascione explained that companies will need to employ ‘marketing as a service’ and switch from “push/interaction marketing” towards something more akin to “pull marketing”.

“With this in mind, we believe all-new sets of interactions will arise in response to new needs. Multichannel marketing will be the new normal, but we will have to adapt the messaging and offering to the new customer value reality. Technology will be the means to the end in order to offer meaningful experiences.”

One way that digital health solutions can be further enhanced to better support meaningful experiences is by leveraging ‘digital empathy’ constructs in the way they are designed and built as Gerry Chillè, general partner at Healthware Labs explained.

“The risk when digital tools are created for patients is that we may create impersonal interactions if we don’t do this correctly. One of the things that we have been working on very hard at Healthware Labs in innovation projects that support physicians in helping patients, is really to focus on what we call empathy threads. This means digital tools that are built especially for a patient’s use should have some elements of what happens naturally in a doctor-patient conversation and relationship, even if that “conversation” is happening between the patient and the digital tool itself.

“This is actually very possible with digital. As much as they can be thought of as impersonal and cold instruments, a lot can be done to create that type of relationship.”

To demonstrate how these constructs can be integrated in the design, build and content of digital health solutions, Chillè showcased Paro – a robotic seal that’s used for elderly patients nursing homes – particularly those suffering with dementia – and for children with autism. In appearance Paro is a cute stuffed animal, but it has built-in sensors and robotics, allowing it to move and generate sounds.

“It reacts to people interacting with it stimulating emotional connectivity via the interactions that have been programmed in it. There have been studies showing that Paro can reduce medication use, especially for stress or depression, and provide better sleep and other clinically measurable health improvements with patients,” Chillè said.

Despite looking like a toy, Paro is a Class II medical device that has been through clinical trials, and the therapeutic robot offers one way to make digital health experiences more meaningful.

Scientific events, MCM and the salesforce

To gauge where COVID-19 is having the biggest impact on the pharmaceutical business, webinar attendees were asked which areas they were most concerned about today. The straw poll found that commercial, sales and marketing engagement topped the list for more than half (56%) of those voting, followed by clinical trials (25%), patient engagement (9%), medical communications (6%) and employees themselves (3%).

Commenting on those findings and the current situation, Intouch International’s managing director Ariel Salmang said: “Sales as a whole is one of the primary problems that’s arising from this crisis. Access overall has become a massive issue due to the unavailability of consultancy hours, because doctors’ offices are being used as triage centres and COVID treatment facilities – then there’s the personal restrictions in terms of stay-home or work-from-home orders.

“How we bridge this access is becoming a central focus for us. Obviously, this will impact significantly the way commercial organisations reach out to the customers, and it will impact the way that research facilities and trials are able to recruit polling patients or even run daily operations of a clinical trial.”

Consequently, the whole idea of industry engagement needs a rethink as the digitalisation of events comes to the forefront, Salmang said.

“It’s probably no surprise, but what we’re seeing is a significant shift towards digital channels that are able to provide detailed information or easy access to services. So, things like websites that provide tangible services or remote detailing to replace face-to-face interaction. All of this is trending up and physicians are sending a very clear message that this is where they see the value moving forward.”

In tandem, companies need to continue to evolve their promotional models so that they move away from being channel-centric and become more customer-centric and insights-driven, he said.

“We need to understand that as well as doing this very quickly, we also have to do it very well. The virtualisation of engagement is not trivial, so it needs to be flawlessly executed to create smooth experiences that have no deterioration in quality vis-a-vis face-to-face visits, otherwise it’s not going to receive the same level of attention,” Salmang said.

This will require a greater degree of flexibility than before as physicians face increasingly unpredictable demands on their days from patients, and relevance and value will be key to cutting through the virtual clutter HCPs face.

“This will only work if you’re presenting a very concise and very tangible value proposition, and that needs to be at the forefront of everything we do. Once we have cut-through the noise, then the content we produce needs to be relevant.

“The idea that pharma companies really should be media companies has never been more true,” Salmang said. “All marketers need to be mindful of the fact that they will need a lot more content, because they are fragmenting their outreach and their engagement significantly.

“We need to be mindful that COVID-19 is changing many aspects of physicians’ lives whether those changes are directly related to COVID or just influenced by COVID.”

Start-up responses

COVID-19 has changed HCPs’ day-to-day lives – possibly forever – and the way digital health start-ups have responded provide new ways of meeting physicians’ shifting needs.

“The digital health start-up community has really rallied to support health care institutions, frontline health care workers, and patients in innovative ways,” said Kristin Milburn, Healthware’s global head of digital health partnerships.

She cited the examples of meditation-focused company Headspace – which provided its app free of charge to all NHS and US healthcare workers – and the ‘music as medicine’ firm HealthTunes, which is accelerating the launch of its app to help support healthcare workers.

Another digital health start-up responding to the emergency is Livongo. The platform for people with chronic conditions has partnered with Kaiser Permanente to offer its myStrength behavioural health solution free of charge to the US managed care consortium’s members.

The three digital health companies recognise that mental health support, always important, has taken on new significance in the midst of the global pandemic and unprecedented restrictions on movement that countries have put in place.

Another subset of digital health that’s been responding at speed to COVID-19 is that of digital therapeutics (DTx). This has been aided by regulatory changes in the US, where the FDA has relaxed its rules on DTx approvals to eliminate roadblocks for companies working to bring mental health support tools to the market.

Meanwhile, an Italian digital health start-up took yet another approach to the situation. Three weeks before the lockdown in Italy occurred, the care delivery platform Paginemediche deployed a chatbot to help triage potential COVID-19 patients and alleviate both the worry of Italian citizens and the burden on the health care system.

“This was deployed on numerous health care institutional websites and hospital portals, and allowed for the stratification of the population based on risk levels,” said Milburn.

“To date, 135,000 patients have used the chatbot. The data it generates is being shared with the WHO and has been credited with helping mitigate the risk of the collapse of services provided by the state to manage the crisis. It’s also been translated into five languages and is available for free for non-profits and other health care institutions.”

She added: “Because start-ups have the agility and speed needed to adapt quickly to a changing environment, they can make excellent partners. I think the most important thing life sciences companies need to do right now is deeply understanding how their target is feeling and what their unmet needs in this new environment are.”


As customer notions of value are radically altered, pharmaceutical companies have to reframe what they offer HCPs, payers and patients, and what sorts of customer experiences they provide while doing so.

Partnerships with start-ups can be a strong way to move forward, with a vibrant digital health ecosystem available for collaborations. Allied to this, the sort of agile approaches seen in sectors such as software development can help companies prioritise their own efforts.

The current situation with COVID-19 offers multiple opportunities to keep working on pharma’s long-held goals of digital transformation, while at the same time responding to the new digital-first environment. It just needs a thoughtful deployment of digital health where execution is key.

About the participants

Roberto Ascione

Roberto Ascione, CEO and founder, Healthware Group
A digital health pioneer and recognised thought leader, Roberto originally trained first a medical doctor and then in marketing communications. A passion for medicine, computer science and human-technology interactions led to his lifelong commitment to the advancement of digital health.
Roberto is currently CEO at independent healthcare consultancy Healthware Group, which helps life sciences companies, healthcare stakeholders and start-ups navigate the digital health transformation.

Ariel Salmang

Ariel Salmang, managing director, Intouch International
For over 20 years Ariel has formulated digital strategies and provided implementation counsel to multiple industries, from media and FMCG to telecommunications and healthcare. In the last 12 years he has focused on the digital evolution of pharma companies and the creation of impactful digital brands and sales drivers.

Kristin Milburn

Kristin Milburn, global head of digital health partnerships, Healthware Group
In her current role at Healthware Group Kristin works to advance the growing field of digital health and digital therapeutics by forging meaningful connections between start-ups, biopharma, tech firms and beyond. Prior to this she worked at Headspace and was an original member of the Digital Medicines unit at Novartis, working to help accelerate the adoption of new digital health solutions to improve the lives of patients.

Gerry Chille

Gerry Chillè, general partner, Healthware Labs
As head of Healthware Labs Gerry helps companies identify and launch scalable and sustainable digital therapeutic solutions built around patient needs. Gerry’s career in the health innovation field  startedin the US, working on early telemedicine research and pilot projects to launching the second-ever online patient community. He is a keen believer and practitioner in digital health’s ability to improve people’s lives and clinical outcomes.

About Healthware Group


Healthware is a next-generation integrated consulting group that has been supporting marketing and sales in life sciences through its full-service agency for more than 20 years. It operates at the intersection of the transformation of commercial operations and digital health, offering a unique range of services combining design, strategy, communication and innovation with technology and corporate venturing. For information visit healthware

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