Digital Divide And Indian Pharma Industry

Over the last one and half decades of this new millennium, despite making significant headway in digital literacy, fueled by consistent progress in the penetration of broadband Internet and availability of more affordable smartphones, a large section of Indian population is still not digitally literate, not even in its importance and awareness, creating a sharp digital divide in the country.

This populace with inadequate or no digital literacy spans across a large section of our society, such as those who are generally poor, many living in rural areas, or lacking in adequate digital awareness, or exhibiting strong preferences in adhering to traditional approaches of doing things, or differently abled individuals, and many elderly persons.

In the health care arena, this citizenry constitutes one of the most vulnerable segments of the society often posing serious health risks, and mostly unable to make use of various digital tools while availing several social sector benefits of the government, as and when required.

However, more concerning is the fact that this gap is not just quite significant, there does not seem to be any near-term possibility of bridging it, either, as all accompanying responsibilities now lying on the government alone. Effective measures to bridging this gap do not depend on just technology, as the issue is multidimensional in nature, necessitating participation of all the stakeholders, pharma included – for a quantum leap in the business growth too.

This should not go unnoticed and unappreciated. Addressing this scenario effectively would call for a different strategic approach – not the usual run of the mill type ad hoc measures, both by the government, and in healthcare, also by the pharma marketers. In this article, I shall dwell in this area.

What it means?

In the modern era, the term ‘digital divide’ broadly refers to the gap between demographics and regions that have access to modern Information and Communications Technology (ICT), and those who don’t or have restricted access to it. Post late 1990s, this terminology is primarily used to describe the split between those with and without Internet access, particularly broadband.

In the global perspective, according to ‘Tech Target’ – the global network of technology-specific websites, the ‘digital divide’ typically exists between those in cities and those in rural areas; between the educated and the uneducated; between socioeconomic groups; and between the more and less industrially developed nations. Even among populations with some access to technology, the digital divide can be evident in the form of lower-performance computers, lower speed wireless connections, lower-priced connections, such as dial-up, and limited access to subscription-based content. The report also points out, while adoption of smartphones is growing, even among relatively lower-income groups, the cost of various data plans and the difficulty of performing tasks and transactions on smartphones continue to inhibit the closing of the gap.

To a large extent, this is applicable to India, as well.

It’s not just a technological issue:

Bridging the ‘digital divide’ in health care is not just a technological issue. It’s rather a complex one with many dimensions. It also depends on the health literacy of individuals, or a society, or the location where they live in. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health literacy as: ‘The cognitive and social skills which determine the motivation and ability of individuals to gain access to, understand, and use information in ways which promote and maintain good health.’

This is not just the ability of a person to understand the health messages, it also involves the individual’s ability to look for the required information, and taking further action accordingly. As a December 2016 study of Michigan State University Extension concludes, those who are more likely to experience low health literacy are, older adults, racial and ethnic minorities, people with less than a high school diploma, people with low income levels, facing language issue for communication and those with compromised health status, such as chronic health conditions. Culture and access to resources also affect people’s health literacy. Another October 2016 study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, establishes the connection between low health literacy and the skepticism on health technologies.

Effectively bridging ‘digital divide’ alone, may not resolve the issue of health literacy. Neither, just addressing the health literacy can bridge the gap of ‘digital divide’, effectively. Thus, there isn’t any ‘one size fits all’ type of solution, to address both these issues, for a synergistic outcome in improving affordable access to quality health care for all.

Bridging the ‘Digital Divide’:

That said, bridging the digital divide, especially in the healthcare segment, has immense relevance in the modern days. As PwC’s Global Digital IQ Survey report of May 2016 observes, health care is arguably one of the world’s most information-intensive sectors, and the opportunities to improve quality, encourage affordability and enhance the consumer experience are vast. Wider application of digital technology can help this sector tackle many of these pressing challenges, effectively. However, the sector is currently behind the curve, the report highlights.

According to another 2016 report by PwC on Indian healthcare, the digital connectivity of the country is expected to grow from 15 percent access in 2014 to 80 percent access in 2034, with rural Internet users increasing by 58 percent annually, which presents a great potential for telemedicine and remote diagnosis in the country. This is indeed encouraging.

Can pharma industry hasten the process?

As I said before, bridging the ‘digital divide’ and improving health literacy, may be construed by many as a primary responsibility of the Indian government, through various robust initiatives backed by allocated budgetary provisions. Nonetheless, in the realm of healthcare, I reckon, pharmaceutical and other related industries can significantly help hastening the process, not just as a social responsibility, but for significant growth in businesses, simultaneously creating a win-win situation for all.

Just to cite an example out of many, various pharma companies can set up ‘digital health information kiosks’ especially in those areas where awareness and participation of the local population related to healthcare issues are poor or suboptimal. These ‘digital health information kiosks’, providing various diseases or treatment related information that a pharma company may be interested in, can be set up at convenient locations, of course, with the approval of local authorities. Such information, should encourage people to seek more and more health information digitally, explaining the whole process, and at the same time persuading them to take available disease prevention measures. and advising them to visit doctors, to initiate early treatment, wherever necessary.

I repeat, this is just an illustration, there could several other ways of achieving the same result.

Increasing relevance:

For healthcare, the above trend would mean empowering most of the population to have unfettered access to knowledge in various health related fields, especially in prevention, management and available treatment options, for various diseases, encompassing both acute and chronic conditions. Thus, this process has the potential to create a significant snowballing effect, not just on

deeper penetration of telemedicine, but also on remote diagnosis in India. In tandem, leveraging this trend early enough and in innovative ways, is likely to enable the pharma players to provide a much-needed boost to their respective business ventures.

Advantage pharma:

Rapid transformation in the complex market dynamics, coupled with increasing challenges in making productive face to face interaction with important doctors for prescription generation and consequent fast decline in the economic outcome of traditional product detailing, is likely to hasten this metamorphosis. On the other hand, this change also brings a blessing in disguise for the pharma players, by opening many new doors of opportunity based on digital platforms, and thereby paving the way for reaping a rich harvest, for all those who will choose to be early adopters.

In the above context, intimate business involvement with the digital world in many areas, such as ‘digital sales and marketing’ assumes a high priority for Indian pharma players, just as it’s being imbibed by some global players, including many in other industries. The speed of its becoming the centerpiece in pharma sales and marketing strategy formulation process ought to be directly linked to the increasing speed of broadband Internet penetration, smart phone and other digital platform usages by people of all ages with enquiring mindsets. Thus, the destiny’s call is clearly ‘Advantage Pharma’.

Key benefits:

According to a paper of April 16, 2014, published by Salford Business School, Manchester, UK, the major benefits of ‘Digital Marketing’ are as follows:

  • It helps businesses to develop a wider customer base as it does not rely on physical presence or interaction.
  • It encourages customers to interact directly with businesses.
  • It is not limited by conventional opening times – customers can interact at a time and place convenient for them

Calibrated increase in usage of digital platforms:

It is worth noting, traditional methods of sales and marketing, barring a few exceptions, are currently prevailing in the Indian pharma industry. In this scenario, each pharma player, must carefully evaluate its current and future product-mix, along with customer types and base, as they would decide, first to initiate, and then to scale up their sales and marketing operations in the digital space in a well-calibrated manner.

In this new ball game, the fresh entrants would need to consider only the credible research-based data, on the rapidly changing aspirational mindset of young Indians, including doctors and patients, with smart phones being a key enabler, on the one hand. While on the other, these should provide optimal digital penetration in different geographical regions or areas, together with the usage of platforms and related demographic configurations.

For example, if a region shows high smartphone usage for community or group chat within the general population, a pharma company may explore the possibility of creatively designing a smart phone based ‘digital patient chat group’ as a part of its patient engagement initiative. In this ‘digital patient chat group’, the members suffering from chronic or even acute ailments can discuss with each other the issues for which one is seeking a solution, where even the pharma companies can intervene, wherever they can add value and is legally permissible.

The effectiveness in working out a game changing crafty blend of both brand and patient-centric communication package with digital tools would separate the men from the boys. It would demand top quality cerebral inputs from the pharma marketers – a requirement that is not so easily available in the current space of pharmaceutical marketing, dominated by a wide variety of freebies.

In conclusion:

Humongous digital divide in India is a fall out, predominantly of disparate availability and access to ICT, not just between those living in rural and urban areas, but spans across several other areas such as, between educated and uneducated people, demographic and economic classes, to name a few. Nonetheless, especially, since the last one and a half decades, the country has made significant headway in gradually reducing this gap, though a lot more ground is yet to be covered in this direction.

Today in India, we witness even various political parties, which used to be very traditional in their approaches have started using a wide variety of digital marketing tools successfully by deploying astute domain experts, to achieve their goals.

For the healthcare sector, including the pharma industry, this progress throws open many doors of opportunities, both for the public, as well as for the industry. Notwithstanding this digital divide and general prevalence of an overarching traditional behavior and response patterns, displaying visible apathy or inability to embrace the promises of the emerging cyber era, several doctors and patients have already started reaping the benefits offered by various digital platforms, tools and media. The regulators governing this sector, are also not lagging far behind, with their presence visible in the digital space too, including social media.

This challenge of change should be effectively leveraged by all stakeholders in healthcare, reaping a rich harvest. Like many other constituents in this intricate, yet interesting ball game, pharma industry too needs to assume an active, pragmatic and proactive role in several innovative ways.

Flooring the gas pedal to move into the digital space of healthcare, would provide significant competitive and commercial advantages to the early movers, more than ever before. When political narratives can be made more productive by embracing the digital platforms, why not the business narratives of the pharma industry in India?

By: Tapan J. Ray 

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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