Digital transformation in the pharmaceutical industry was already happening before COVID-19 shook the world to its foundations. The combination of fast-moving, consumer-driven technology and a relatively sluggish, conservative industry, accustomed to a tight regulatory grip, sometimes made for uneasy bedfellows. But pharma recognised that the digital revolution was here to stay and, in a data-rich industry, offered considerable benefits.

Under pandemic conditions, many of the industry’s core activities had to move abruptly into the virtual sphere. If working remotely has brought its share of frustrations, it has also significantly accelerated adoption of digital technologies and media, both within the pharmaceutical industry and in the healthcare systems it serves.

This shift is likely to have far-reaching consequences for trends in pharmaceutical industry operations, even once the smoke starts to clear from COVID-19. Companies only need look at what is happening in other parts of the healthcare system, where digital leaders such as Amazon, Google and IBM are seizing opportunities to develop virtual platforms for personalised patient communications.

The global pandemic has lent additional impetus to patients’ growing familiarity with, and use of, digital technologies in managing their health. According to a Medisafe/Dynata survey of 2,000 US consumers in July 2020, 37% were using more digital technologies, while 42% had turned to digital health for the first time.

As Matt Longman, marketing communications manager for Medisafe, a US company specialising in digital medication-management platforms, noted during a recent webinar, patients like the rapid response rate of digital tools, their ease of use, and the opportunity to access more personalised care. In the survey, 60% of respondents said they would continue using digital tools post-COVID.

These trends have clear implications for pharma’s business model and interactions with key stakeholders. The challenge for industry is how to insert itself productively into these changing relationships.

Pharma needs to capitalise on digital’s potential for real-time data generation, building more holistic, patient-oriented value into tailored products and services. At the same time, it must avoid flouting restrictions on direct-to-patient promotion of medicines, or undermining the traditional role of healthcare professionals as patient confidants and gatekeepers to care.

HCPs may value digital tools as a way of overcoming physical barriers to interaction (especially under COVID-19), broadening the healthcare conversation, facilitating information flow with patients, encouraging treatment adherence, or enabling informed self-management of chronic diseases. Nonetheless, these tools are about augmenting, not replacing, existing relationships, stresses Dr Daniel Sands, chief medical officer at Medisafe.

Health remains “an analogue process”, and “we still need the human touch in there”, he told the webinar organised by Medisafe on COVID-19 and digital health. Not all patients are engaged, empowered or enlightened; some may not be comfortable with digital technology, and some may not own smartphones or have easy internet access.

This is something for pharma to bear in mind, and not just in relationship to patients. However much digital can achieve in facilitating or broadening interaction, there will still be situations, personalities or cultures where building trust requires face-to-face contact.

It may not be time yet to start putting traditional field forces out to pasture, for example. But reps can undoubtedly enhance relationships, and cut to the quick of interaction, by using the digital tools and media at their disposal, particularly in view of time pressures on HCPs, the growing complexity of speciality medicines, and tighter restrictions on pharma’s promotional activity.

The range of possibilities offered by digital technology in pharma is vast. Just a sample might include:

  • Apps, portals, websites, gaming platforms, embedded sensors, wearables or other digital tools for patient support and education, relationship-building, data exchange, medication adherence, monitoring of health indicators or disease progression, and accumulation of real-world evidence.
  • Cultivating patient-centricity and informed self-management of disease.
  • Gaining insights into patient characteristics, preferences and responses that help to personalise healthcare and therapeutic interventions.
  • Streamlining, targeting and optimising pharma R&D through advanced analytics.
  • Leveraging big data internally and externally to create, demonstrate and maintain value.
  • Expanding and enriching communications with HCPs and other key stakeholders.
  • Enabling virtual detailing, information provision, relationship-building and other sales force activities restrained by reduced access to HCPs.
  • Digital therapeutics as alternatives or supplements to mainstream pharmaceutical intervention.
  • Software platforms to improve launch management and execution through improved visibility, collaboration, alignment, flexibility or targeting of ground-level activities.

To learn more about trends in the pharmaceutical industry affecting new product launches in 2021, and find out more about how TRiBECA® Knowledge can help you accelerate digital transformation in launch execution, please download our free Launch Readiness 2021 white paper.