The speculation over quite some time has ended now. The most important C-suite office of the world’s top pharma company will find a brand-new occupant at the dawn of a brand-new year, on January 01, 2019. Albert Bourla will now be on the saddle to lead Pfizer moving towards a new horizon of success, in place of Ian Read.
What makes this change interesting to me, is the new leader’s not just shaking up the top team at Pfizer, but his simultaneous announcement for another brand-new C-Suite role in the company – The Chief Digital Officer (CDO). She will ‘lead the company’s digital efforts across research, discovery and business processes.’
Merck & Co. also joined ‘the chief digital officer parade’ on October 17, 2018 when it announced the appointment of chief information and digital officer, also as a member of the company’s Executive Committee. Notwithstanding a few global pharma companies’ have already started creating this role, the timing of this initiative by the top global pharma player, sends an interesting signal to many. Undoubtedly, it is a strategic move, and is surely backed by a profound intent. In this article, while exploring this point I shall try to fathom whether or not any fundamental change is taking shape in the strategic space of pharma business.
A fundamental change is taking shape:
This fundamental change, I reckon, is driven by realization that just discovery of new medicines, high quality manufacturing and high voltage marketing can no longer be regarded as success potent in the industry. There emerges a palpable and growing demand for holistic solutions in the disease treatment process, for optimal clinical outcomes and reduction of the burden of disease.
That several top global pharma companies have recognized this fact, is vindicated by what the Sandoz Division of Novartis acknowledged on its website. It quoted Vas Narasimhan – CEO of Novartis saying: “We are on the verge of a digital revolution across every aspect of the healthcare sector, from the lab bench to the patient’s bedside.”
Interestingly, pharma stakeholders’ interests and expectations, including those of patients, are also progressing in the same direction. This, in turn, is changing the way of leading and managing a pharma business – requiring a kind leadership with specific expertise in several new areas. The new C-suite position for a CDO is a proof of this change gathering strong tailwind.
What prompts this change?
As I see it, besides scores of other associated factors that digital technology offers to all, a single characteristic that stands out is the changing patients’ expectations for optimal clinical outcomes out of an affordable and involved disease treatment process.
This has always been so, but is now changing from mere expectations or just a hope, to patients’ demand, from both physicians and the pharma companies. This is a clear writing on the wall in the days ahead, and all concerned should take note of it, seriously. Does it mean that the broad flowchart of the disease-treatment-process, as I call it, has changed? Before delving into that area, let me briefly explain what exactly I mean by saying so.
A flowchart of the disease-treatment-process:
The broad flowchart for most of the disease-treatment-process, have primarily 6 ‘touchpoints’ or points of references, as I see it, which may be summarized as follows:
Patients – Signs & Symptoms – Doctors – Diagnosis – Medicines – Clinical outcomes
This means, patients with signs and symptoms of a disease come to the doctors. With various diagnostic tests, the disease or a combination of diseases is diagnosed. Then, doctors prescribe medicines or any other required medical interventions for desired clinical outcomes.
Has it changed now?
There doesn’t seem to be any fundamental change in this flowchart even today. But, the way the pharma players cherry-pick their areas of focus from its various touch points, is undergoing a metamorphosis.
As it stands today, to sell medicines – innovative or even generic pharma companies primarily focus on the doctors and off-late on patients – but just a few of them, to offer clinical outcomes better or same as others. In the evolving new paradigm, a successful drug companies would need to focus on each of these six elements of the flowchart with great expertise and sensitivity, from the patients’ perspective.
The position of CDO is expected to be a great enabler to facilitate the process of integrating all the touchpoints in the disease-treatment-flow. This will, in turn, offer a holistic treatment solution for patients – selling more medicines being the endpoint of this objective. If it doesn’t happen, the touchpoints where pharma is not focusing today would be captured soon by the non-pharma tech players. This will make achieving the financial goals of the organization even more difficult.
Let me illustrate this point by adding just one important area from this flowchart to the traditional pharma focus areas. This touchpoint goes hand in hand with the prescription of medicines – medical diagnosis. Providing patient- friendly disease prevention and monitoring tools may be yet another such area.
Current accuracy of medical diagnosis – ‘only correct in 80 percent of cases’:
The above was quoted by Sandoz (a Division of Novartis) in its website. It highlighted that the researchers at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, UK found that several medical diagnoses based on a limited range of factors are only correct in 80 percent of cases. It means ‘a diagnosis may miss imminent heart attacks, or it may lead to an unnecessary operation,’ it said.
The January 31, 2018 article published by Futurism.com - the publishing arm of Futurism, based in New York City, also underscores some interesting facts in this regard, including the above example. Some of these are fascinating, as I quote hereunder:
- Researchers at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, England, developed an AI diagnostics system that’s more accurate than doctors at diagnosing heart disease, at least 80 percent of the time.
- At Harvard University, researchers created a “smart” microscope that can detect potentially lethal blood infections with a 95 percent accuracy rate.
- A study from Showa University in Yokohama, Japan revealed that a new computer-aided endoscopic system can reveal signs of potentially cancerous growths in the colon with 94 percent sensitivity, 79 percent specificity, and 86 percent accuracy.
- In one study, published in December 2017 by JAMA, it was found that deep learning algorithms were able to better diagnose metastatic breast cancer than human radiologists when under a time crunch. While human radiologists may do well when they have unrestricted time to review cases, in the real world a rapid diagnosis could make the difference between life and death for patients.
- When challenged to glean meaningful insights from the genetic data of tumor cells, human experts took about 160 hours to review and provide treatment recommendations based on their findings. IBM’s Watson took just ten minutes to deliver the same actionable advice.
Thus, the bottom-line is: Medical or clinical diagnosis is a crucial area where the tech savvy environment can add significant unmet needs to save lives of many. Consequently, this space is emerging as an Eldorado, as it were, for all those who are seriously interested in diving deep in search of a golden future in the related business.
Technological players are making forays:
Several tech companies have sensed the reward of a pot of gold in the above space, despite the journey being quite arduous. Consequently, many of them are coming up with user-friendly and disease-specific digital tools and health apps, compatible with smart phones or smart watches. These help patients monitoring their own health data, independently, and be aware of the disease progression, if any. Simultaneously, it also enables physicians not only to accurately diagnose a disease, but also to keep a careful vigil on the progress of the treatment.
To illustrate the point with an example – say about Apple. The company began making inroads into the healthcare space with health apps and fitness-tracking via iPhone and Apple Watch. Interestingly, riding on partnership and acquisition initiatives, it is now carving a niche for itself to provide complete health records of the users by capturing relevant disease-specific clinical data.
Apple Watch Series 4, for example, has ECG feature and the ability to detect irregular heart-rhythm, which is US-FDA approved. Reports indicate the company is also in the process of developing a non-invasive glucose monitoring tool, besides many others. Curiously, the company has already given a signal to extend the usage of iPhone to a reliable diagnostic tool for many disease conditions. Most important to note is, this concept is fast gaining popularity.
Calls for of a holistic approach in the disease-treatment process-flow:
As this trend keeps going north, many pharma companies are realizing the underlying opportunity to adopt a holistic strategic business approach to move into the new frontier. This would encompass the entire disease-treatment-process-flow with digital technology, across the organization. Before other non-pharma companies firmly position themselves on the saddle while entering into this area, pharma needs to move fast. This calls for an urgent action to collaborate with tech companies in all the critical touchpoints of this flow, including diagnosis. That this realization gas dawned in pharma is evident from a number of related developments. Let me quote just a couple of examples, as follows:
- Onduo, a US$500-million diabetes-focused joint venture between Sanofi and Verily Life Sciences, an Alphabet company was founded in September 2016. Onduo recently launched its first product – an app plus, a continuous glucose-monitoring device plus an insulin pump that are all linked together. The Onduo app has a built-in coach (i.e., an electronic assistant) to help patients better manage their diabetes and accomplish their health goals.
- GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Verily (formerly Google Life Sciences) have formed a joint venture to develop and commercialize bioelectronic medicine – miniaturized nerve implants that modulate electrical impulses to treat certain diseases.
Lack of digital leadership talent within the pharma industry?
It is interesting to note that both the Pfizer and Merck CDOs were recruited from non-pharma companies – Pfizer’s from Quest Diagnostics and Merck’s from Nike. Earlier, in mid 2017, former Walmart CIO was named the Chief Digital and Technology Officer of GlaxoSmithKline. This trend probably brings to the fore, the lack of top digital leadership talent within the pharma industry.
Increasingly pharma companies are realizing that enormous efforts and money spent in just marketing a drug, is producing a lesser and lesser yield, as the new paradigm unfolds. As we move on, patients no longer will want to buy just a medicine from the pharma players. They will want an integrated solution for prevention, cure or management of a disease.
At the same time, strong technology players, such as Apple, Google, IBM’s Watson are on the verge of capturing a sizeable ground, offering a gamut of patient-friendly offerings in the healthcare space. This would eventually make prescription of digital therapy a new reality. These tech companies are now entering through several virtually open doors in the disease-treatment-flow process, as I call it, primarily covering – diagnosis, disease monitoring and preventive care.
To effectively compete and grow in this environment, drug companies have to cover all the touchpoints of this process, not just the selective ones as are generally happening even today.
Creation of a new C-suite position of Chief Digital Officer to address this issue in a holistic away, across the organization, gives a clear signal to this realization. Thus, I reckon, offering a holistic treatment solution, covering all the touchpoints in the disease-treatment-flow process will be a new normal for pharma, not just for excellence in business, but for a long-term survival too.
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.