How pharma needs to change for the era of digital health

Experts from Healthware Group explore how companies can rebuild their approach to digital from the ground up for the benefit of patients.

Digital is not just a nice-to-have for pharma companies – it’s a necessity for ensuring that patients have the best possible outcomes in modern healthcare systems.

With digital tools and techniques being able to improve almost every aspect of a pharma company’s business, from R&D to sales, there’s no excuse for not implementing digital transformation at every level – and that’s not even mentioning new opportunities for life science firms to produce digital products that can complement or even replace traditional medicines.

Roberto Ascione, founder and CEO of Healthware, says that this landscape means that companies like his need to expand to be “communicators, connectors and builders” all at once – and this is a philosophy he has built up within Healthware over the last two and a half decades.

“When it comes to being communicators, we are communicators of disease information, which allows us to empower people to treat and cope with their conditions,” he says. “We are also communicators of digital tools, which allow us to empower physicians as well, and communicators of innovation, through which we can energise innovators to build these tools.

“But we also need to be communicators of ideas. We need to take thought leadership seriously, because by communicating ideas we let them flow into the ecosystem, which generates a drive for transformation.

“This is why we want to hear from people and bring people together. That energy really fuels growth and change, and in doing so we need to constantly modernise what we communicate and how we provoke the change that will drive things forward.”

By being ‘connectors’, Ascione says, Healthware can join dots that don’t mean much on their own but can add up to something much greater.

“By connecting physicians and patients to each other and to relevant platforms, we can work towards the goal of always connecting the right targets to the right solutions. That is a massive gap in the healthcare sector at the moment.

“Similarly, by connecting people and forming communities we can give people in this space a sense of belonging and help them share ideas.

“In digital health, no one can do this alone.”

He adds that the sense of being ‘builders’ is something close to his heart, because when he started Healthware 24 years ago the company was initially focused on building software.

“As well as building brands, building software is still a core part of what we do. But now we are starting to build companies in collaboration with great founding teams that we can complement.

“This is very transformational for our industry, because it moves a company like us from the role of helping products get to market to a company that is becoming a part of those products.”

The opportunities inherent in this widespread transformation are obviously immense for pharma and service companies alike – but for the benefits to reach as many patients as possible, pharma companies need to ensure digital is deeply rooted in their organisations, not just built on an ad-hoc basis.

“Pharma needs to not just build on historic models but start to challenge the fundamental way these models operate,” says Dr Paul Tunnah, chief content officer at Healthware Group. “You can see echoes of this in the approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID vaccine – that was approved far quicker than anyone could have expected a year ago, because there was a real drive to rethink that process from the ground up with speed in mind.”

Ariel Salmang, managing director of Healthware’s Intouch International joint venture, says that pharma’s current digital drive is being influenced by two key trends.

“The first is that there is a general shift towards a more consumer-based approach to information. In the past pharma has mostly just pushed information to stakeholders, but that push model has evolved into a mindset where people expect to be engaged with rather than lectured to.

“We’re now seeing a demand for the creation of strong customer experiences.”

The second trend, Salmang says, is that there is a global shift to outcomes-based healthcare and reimbursement, and the pressure on pharma to support that model has increased dramatically.

“Physicians are under pressure themselves to align their prescribing habits to a more financially viable model. They no longer want pharma to just give them information – they also want to be provided with the tools they need to meet these new demands.”

Luckily, Salmang says, pharma is generally aware that business as usual is no longer sustainable.

“Many pharma companies have been hiring from outside the sector and have already tested many new technologies, new approaches, and new ways of going to market. Now they need to make sure they demonstrate consistency in these approaches and are committing to change on a broader scale.

“Companies are now looking for help in making their pilots grow and moving from a ‘let’s give it a try’ approach to fundamentally changing how they do business.”

Within this environment, companies that support pharma with digital expertise are finding that they can bring a fresh perspective to the industry and play a key role in affecting long-term change.

Kristin Milburn is Healthware Group’s New York-based global head of digital health partnerships. She says that the company has broadened out its model from providing more expected traditional agency services. These have been augmented by an offering of consultancy solutions that help clients to stay abreast of new trends, and provided them with the necessary strategic support to operate within them.

“One area which we’ve seen a lot more interest from our clients is around getting up to speed on the telehealth landscape,” she says. “We’ve approached this in several different ways: providing landscape analyses of the field, helping educate physicians on how to leverage telehealth, and strategising on tools to support those efforts overall.”

Milburn notes that the industry is facing an era where digital transformation is not static – rather, it will keep changing as technologies improve and will require constant strategic evolution and adoption.

Meanwhile, she says, we are approaching a stage where life science companies might have digital therapeutic pipelines alongside their molecular pipelines – and at some point there may not even be a distinction between the two.

“Clients vary in their readiness in this area, and as technologies evolve they need to stay competitive,” she adds. “It’s a continuous process to help clients adapt to these changes at scale and across geographies.

“When it comes to digital health tools, I’d say clients are at an early stage in their adoption. However, patients seem eager and willing to adopt these kinds of solutions and are doing so, so pharma needs to keep up.”

Salmang says that Healthware has found the best way to get companies to change is through “a lot of honesty”.

“Bringing in new technology is easy, but changing the way people work requires both a mind shift and a cultural shift across the entire organisation, and that in turn requires companies to be honest about what they can and can’t do well.

“Agile working is probably the best example of this. A lot of pharmaceutical companies are adopting agile ways of working, but if you convert your marketing and sales organisations to agile but not your procurement, regulatory, medical and legal teams, you’re creating new barriers.

“Digital transformation needs to be pervasive to people, processes and culture. That can be the most challenging thing to achieve in any pharmaceutical environment.”

Three key questions for digital transformation

Salmang says that when Healthware consults with clients it always focuses on three core questions to help them understand their current capabilities and where they can improve.

“First there’s the ‘What?’, which involves understanding what the status quo is, where the operational roadblocks are, what is available and what isn’t being used properly,” he says.

“Then we look at the ‘So what?’, which is the contextual layer. Take a look at the different tools and approaches employed across your markets and ask what they are doing for you as an organisation. What suffers and what benefits because of them?

“Then our key deliverable is the ‘Now what?’: How do we solve this situation? How do we move forward? What are the very specific next steps, both short-, mid- and long-term that can make transformation happen in a sustainable way?”

Salmang emphasises that these steps can be applied even when a company believes it is mature in its digital transformation.

“The fundamental truth of digital is that there is no steady state. You have to keep iterating and innovating. That means also challenging your own status quo continuously. ‘What? So what? Now what?’ needs to become a cycle that you’re applying regularly.”

A common roadblock within the industry occurs when companies approach digital with the same mindset with which they approach drug development and product launches.

“Pharma has always been told it needs absolute safety, absolute tolerability and absolute efficacy,” Salmang says. “Nobody would dream of launching a drug that is unfinished. Everything pharma does is built around the principle of getting it absolutely right before launch.

“The digital world doesn’t work that way, and the successful digital pharma companies are those that understand that ‘good enough’ is all you need to get a project through the door, as long as you don’t stop there and continue to improve it.”

Salmang says this is something Healthware is now implementing at an operational level within a number of different sized pharma companies.

“In an agile company you need to define the minimum viable product that allows you to go to market, see if it works, learn from that first engagement, then come back and define the next iteration. That cycle should never stop.”

He re-emphasises that there is a strong recognition of this need within pharma companies, and rarely does an organisation push back against such suggestions from Healthware – but it can take time to turn that early optimism into a transformation plan and set it up.

“This is where we need to support our clients by setting a roadmap that delivers change at a sustainable speed rather than overwhelming people,” he says.

“We also need to be mindful that business has to continue while the company changes. It’s not like Formula 1 where you pull into the pit lane, very quickly refuel and change the tyres then start racing again. It’s more like refuelling a fighter jet in mid-air – we have to keep two planes aloft while transferring petrol from one to the other.”

A digital reshaping of the health ecosystem

Salmang also sees a wider role for companies like Healthware in ensuring that digital is embedded and considered at every level of the sector. When digital becomes a core part of pharma and healthcare, future transformations can happen much more smoothly.

Patients and physicians alike have reacted extremely positively to the flexibility and convenience presented by pharma’s embrace of digital and remote solutions during COVID-19, and are pushing for these innovations to stick around once the pandemic ends. Meanwhile, the acceptance of digital therapeutics continues to grow, changing the ways physicians think about treating patients.

This will mandate a much more data-driven and transparent relationship between healthcare providers and patients. This will be especially pertinent as the use of electronic health records becomes more widespread and more patient data flows into the system, to be collected from digital tools and processed by AI programmes.

“All that brings with it a need for governance and a review of data privacy standards,” says Salmang.

“This shift is going to become something that entirely reshapes the fibre of the health ecosystem. We recognised very early on that the evolution of the digital world was going to impact pharma, and that it couldn’t stay in a Wild West scenario forever – it needed to grow up and be formalised.

“Because of that, we work with regulators, policymakers and ecosystems to establish confident, documentable, and agreeable standards.”

Similarly, Healthware believes it is important to ensure that digital innovations don’t remain as isolated pilots but are integrated into industry frameworks from the very beginning of their development.

“One key piece of advice we always give clients is to make sure digital pilots are being run in-house, not in separate offices off-campus,” says Salmang.  “If companies want to eventually transition this into business-as-usual they need everyone who is tasked with safeguarding the integrity of the business at the table.

“It took a few years of being in constant dialogue with these functions, but we’re now seeing established standards for digital. We live in a regulated industry, so having all the stakeholders in the dialogue at the table is a driver of innovation, not a roadblock.”

Similarly, a key factor for success is the long-term commitment required to truly make digital work for an organisation. In fact, Salmang notes that the idea of digital making everything faster is largely a misconception.

“It can actually make things take longer because it breaks the mould of established business. It’s also not necessarily going to yield a result from day one.

“Digital transformation needs to be factored into a company’s commercial perspective, with an understanding that it’s not a short-term investment with immediate yield but a major long-term investment into generating efficiencies.”

This needs a recalibration of thinking because, as Dr Tunnah notes, companies are often under short-term financial pressure. “This can drive them to focus on the commercial aspects of digital. But that creates a risk that areas that need longer-term thinking – such as how digital might accelerate R&D processes – will get left behind.

“The industry needs the right leaders, ones who have that long-term view as well as the ability to structure companies, so that the individuals who can drive that change have the space and the time to do so and are not just worried about the next quarterly financial results.”

Listening to the digital ecosystem

Working in the health innovation ecosystem in this way requires companies like Healthware to make sure they are aware of how the life science, digital health and health insurance sectors might evolve in the near future and adapt accordingly.

Dr Tunnah says that building connections within this environment is key.

“We’ve made connectivity part of the lifeblood of Healthware by being involved in events like Frontiers Health, as well as making sure our portfolio has publication assets.

“If you’re working in this space you need to be having conversations every day that aren’t just to do with projects, but that help you keep up-to-date with what’s happening with digital health investors, med tech companies, insurers, innovation teams and pharma.

“It’s easy to think everybody does that, but actually finding the time to keep connected in a market that’s moving as quickly as this one can be difficult for a lot of companies.”

That comes back to the idea of Healthware being ‘connectors’ as well as ‘communicators’ and ‘builders’, and Ascione says that all three of these considerations must feed into one another for companies to realise the potential power of digital in improving people’s health.

“The ultimate goal of digital health is to humanise care by filling the gap between the needs of healthcare and the access to it – by helping patients receive the appropriate care at the speed, the price and the location they need.

“If we are able to help solve these problems we can not only improve the ‘care’ part of ‘healthcare’, but also improve health for patients across the world.”

Communicators, Connectors, Builders of Future Health

Far-reaching expertise

We represent, through the Intouch Group joint venture, one of the largest independent global players in the sector with a combined team of over 1,300 people and a strong international presence with offices in New York, Boston, Kansas City, Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego, London, Cologne, Milan, Rome, Salerno, Helsinki and Mumbai.


For more than 20 years, we have successfully been driving excellence in digital transformation for over 50 clients across more than 30 countries and 60+ brands.

Our health innovation ecosystem

We enjoy close relationships with the most successful accelerators, incubators and innovation hot spots globally, ensuring a constant flow of new ideas and opportunities tailored to the needs of our clients.

At the same time we love to connect and foster networking between all stakeholders whether large global life sciences companies or smart emerging start-ups.

Born digital, forward looking, fully integrated

We work at the intersection of industry digital transformation and digital health by providing a novel, integrated solution to existing and emerging stakeholders combining marketing, communications, media and technology capabilities with innovation consultancy and a vertical corporate venture arm.

  • Advisory & Digital Transformation
  • Content Factory
  • Corporate Venturing
  • Digital Health Consultancy
  • HCP Engagement & Media Management
  • Innovation Consultancy
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  • Patients Experience
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Therapeutic focus

Experienced in a wide range of therapeutic areas across life sciences and medical devices.

Our mission – an integrated healthcare service partner fueled by innovation

We are on the side of those companies that have understood the extent and potential of digital health transformation. We believe that technology and innovation are the main catalysts in today’s healthcare revolution, and strive to unleash their power to improve health outcomes while delivering transformational business results for our clients.

About the interviewees

Roberto Ascione

Roberto Ascione, CEO and founder, Healthware Group

Roberto is active in the digital health ecosystem in various advisor capacities, both in Europe and in the US, to companies, start-ups and investors. Among others, he has been recognised as Decade’s Best Industry Leader by Health 2.0 Conference – 10 Year Global Retrospective Award in 2016, nominated Transformational Leader at the 2017 PM360 ELITE Awards and named among the 100 Most Inspiring People by PharmaVOICE in 2017. He is a founding member of the Digital Therapeutics Alliance, past president of the Health Tech Summit and is chairman at Frontiers Health.

Kristin milburn

Kristin Milburn, global head of digital partnerships, Healthware Group

Kristin has held leadership roles in strategy/planning and client engagement at various digital firms with numerous Fortune 100 pharmaceutical and technology clients. After launching her own digital shop and rising through the ranks on the agency side, Kristin jumped to the client side and joined the newly formed unit at Novartis called Digital Medicines in 2015. In that role, she looked to make transversal connections from other industries and find diverse partners from all corners of the healthcare ecosystem and beyond to help accelerate the experimentation and adoption of new digital health solutions to improve the lives of patients.


Ariel Salmang, managing director, Intouch International

Ariel has over 20 years of providing impactful digital strategies and implementation across multiple industries, from media and FMCG to telecommunications and healthcare, where he has spent the last 10+ years focusing on the digital evolution of pharma companies and the creation of impactful digital brands and sales drivers. His healthcare experience includes local, regional and pan-regional projects across the US, Europe, Asia Pacific, and LATAM.

Paul Tunnah

Dr Paul Tunnah, chief content officer & managing director UK, Healthware Group

Dr Paul Tunnah founded pharmaphorum in 2009, which combines industry leading publications with a specialist strategy and content marketing/communications consultancy. He is a recognised author, speaker and industry advisor on content marketing, communications and digital innovation, having worked with many of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies and the broader ecosystem of healthcare organisations. In June 2020, he became chief content officer for Healthware Group, a next-generation integrated consulting group that 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. Connect with Dr Tunnah on LinkedIn or Twitter.

About Healthware Group

Healthware is a next-generation integrated consulting group that for more than 20 years has been offering large companies and start-ups in the life sciences and insurance sectors a unique set of services and expertise in strategic consulting, communication, technology and innovation to drive the digital transformation of health.

Founded in Italy, it is led by CEO and founder Roberto Ascione, an international entrepreneur and opinion leader with 20 years of experience in marketing and communication, business process transformation and innovation applied to health.

Healthware, together with its joint venture partner Intouch Group, represents one of the largest independent global players in the sector with a combined team of over 1,300 people and a strong international presence with offices in New York, Boston, Kansas City, Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego, London, Cologne, Milan, Rome, Salerno, Helsinki and Mumbai.

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