The pharmaceutical industry is likely to reignite interest in artificial intelligence (AI) and big data in the coming years after a conspicuous drop in 2020. And while cloud computing saw an upsurge in outlay due to Covid-19 lockdown measures, this is likely to peter out moving forward owing to further investments not needing to be as high as the first round.

This is the hypothesis of an ongoing survey run by GlobalData called the Digital Transformation Survey. Now in its fourth year, the five-to-seven-minute survey uses the same set of questions annually to monitor sentiment in the pharma industry on how digital innovation is being established and expanded.

The survey allows digital experts to understand what the pharma industry needs and pinpoint barriers, GlobalData Healthcare market research senior director Urte Jakimaviciute explains. As such, it’s an opportunity for the pharma industry to have their voice heard, she adds. The survey closes on 18 October, with information gathered from at least 150 respondents to be reported at the end of November.

AI and big data likely to regain momentum

While the Covid-19 pandemic bolstered digital investment in the pharma industry, it was going in that direction anyway as such improvements alleviate industry pressure from all directions: financial, productivity, regulatory, among others. “Digital transformation was already underway – the pandemic just sped up the process,” Jakimaviciute says, although she adds the scale of last year’s digital transformation was impressive considering the pharma industry is typically risk-averse.

In response to the pandemic, the pharma industry has had to triage on which of its digital needs it should prioritise. According to 2020 survey results, there was a 10% decline among respondents who said their companies were investing or were going to invest in AI and big data compared to 2019. This was an intriguing finding because interest in both was high in previous years, Jakimaviciute says. AI and big data go hand in hand because analysis of big data is powered by AI.

Pharma digitisation
GlobalData Healthcare market research senior director Urte Jakimaviciute.

However, interest in AI and big data is likely to surge again in the coming years based on last year’s survey, Jakimaviciute says. AI and big data have a very important role in pharma, such as in the drug discovery process. The decline in 2020 was due to digital investments having to be reallocated to other more urgent needs, she notes.

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Specifically, there was a 20% jump among 2020 survey respondents who said their companies were investing or were interested in cloud computing and social media compared to the year before, reflecting a shift to remote work due to the pandemic.

But once companies invest in cloud computing, they do not need to have the same level of outlay moving forward, Jakimaviciute says. This allows for plans to expand digital capabilities to be steered elsewhere. However, interest in social media is likely to stay on for longer. The current and likely future stages of the pandemic may still require remote communications with patients and between people working in the industry, she adds.

Blockchain growth stifled by pandemic

One surprising result from last year’s survey is that investment in blockchain was not as high as expected, despite it being touted as having the potential to improve every part of the pharma value chain. Blockchain is a system of recording information that makes it very hard to manipulate digital systems.

This goes to show blockchain in the pharma industry is still in its infancy; it has a long way to go before it reaches full adaptation and implementation. More urgent digital needs during the pandemic also likely stifled its momentum, Jakimaviciute says. Intriguingly, cybersecurity was a big winner in last year’s survey: interest in tackling cyber threats rose by more than 10% compared to 2019 survey results.

Another noteworthy 2020 finding was that there were many companies that were caught unaware by the digital demands of the pandemic. “Many companies were not prepared: they did not have sufficient tech-savvy people to keep up with the digital transformation efforts,” Jakimaviciute notes.

Looking further ahead, interest in virtual reality and augmented reality will likely be important owing to the pharma industry’s gradual transition to online workflows, Jakimaviciute says. Even more so would be interest in 5G, especially with heightened interest in decentralised clinical trials, given that all these technology advancements rely on high-speed internet.

GlobalData is Pharmaceutical Technology and Clinical Trials Arena’s parent company.