Digitization or Digitalization: What’s Seen More in Indian Pharma?

Just before this New Year, a doctor friend from a large city of India invited me for dinner, as I happened to be there for a couple of days. Dr. Srikanth Kashikar (name changed) is one of my longtime friends, and a super specialist in the field of oncology.

As Srikanth planned to come for dinner straight from his clinic, I was keen to observe a few pharma  company representatives making professional calls to him, if possible. Srikanth agreed. as that was one of those days when he meets them, after seeing all his patients. 8 pm was the mutually agreed time.

I was there a little before the scheduled time. However, as Srikanth was still examining a patient, he came out and asked me to wait for a few minutes in his assistant’s room. Right around 8.15 pm I was in his office. He sent a message through his secretary that he won’t be able to see more than two representatives, as he needs to go out.

What I experienced?

Sometime back, I had a similar experience of sitting incognito in the clinic of another doctor friend, practising in another major city. Hence, I had a heightened level of interest in getting a ringside view of changes in the professional discourse, if any, especially involving the science and art of persuasive medical communication of the modern world.

Meanwhile, the first representative – a pleasant personality, and wearing a smile on his face, entered the room. As he greeted, my friend reciprocated with a brief smile. The young man was representing a large global pharma player. He seemed to be a bit nervous, though, probably apprehending the time constraint to do his job effectively.

I was delighted to see him taking out a tablet computer. He commenced detailing a complex oncology product, but apparently was going a bit faster than any normal communication process. Digitally captured impressive visuals, sound and medical references flashed in and out. It reminded me the age-old approach of Medical Representatives’ (MR) detailing from well-designed folders, printed on art cards.

Dr. Kashikar did not ask any question, neither during nor after the presentation. His face was rather expressionless – difficult to fathom what was going in his mind, at that time.  Nonetheless, having completed his detailing, the young MR explained the procedure for the patients to get his expensive cancer product at a concessional price. This also did not appear much novel to me, either. Requesting for prescription support, the young man left the clinic, a bit hurriedly, though.

The second MR came in, accompanied by a not so young gentleman, whom he introduced as a manager. They were from a large Indian company. As the MR was about to take his detailing aid out, my doctor friend asked him to make his presentation brief. This apparently unsettled the person. Highlighting just a few points for different products from his folder, he requested the doctor to prescribe a particular oncology brand, and looked at the manager. At that stage, his manager took out a tablet PC demonstrating a product price comparison chart, and also the results of some local clinical trials that his company has conducted on the product. My friend shifted his posture on the chair several times till the manager was done with his presentation.

After they left, I looked at my friend, as he looked at me. He smiled, and said let’s go. I did not enquire anything about the two just concluded calls, either. Thereafter, it was purely laughter and fun between two of us and our wives, as we all were catching up with each other.

My overall impression?

My impression? These will obviously be based on just two interactions, involving some big pharma names, though. It appeared to me, top and busy doctors, such as my friend, continue remaining mostly passive during product detailing. MRs usually switch into a mode of hurry, when asked for making a brief presentation by the specialists, just as what was happening in the past.

The only visible change, I guess, is in a few areas of digitization of detailing tools. I hope, considerable time-gap between my two such experiences, was filled-up by expensive external and internal training inputs of all kinds, including digitization in some areas. Thus, the moot question that surfaces: Are these training programs significantly improving per field staff average productivity on the ground?  In case the answer is ‘no’, there arises an urgency to know ‘why’ and what is the way forward?


The answer to the above question of productivity would entail an enormous amount of data to analyze, which I don’t have access to, right now. Nonetheless, as an illustration, let me zero-in on to just one change that I noticed on that day –  the use of tablet computer during field staff interaction with the doctors. This brings me to the subject of today’s discussion – ‘Digitization or Digitalization: What’s Seen More in Indian Pharma?’ In this article, I shall deliberate on this fascinating area during the changing phase of pharma business dynamics.

More of ‘Digitization’ or ‘Digitalization’?

Both ‘Digitization’ and ‘Digitalization’ are important, and often used as interchangeable words. Although, these two are significantly different, it’s not possible to bring in a digital transformation in business sans digitization.

A.   Digitization:

Digitization basically means automation of currently followed manual systems, records and processes, from analog to digital formats. These cover different types of paperwork or paper-based information systems, including photos or sound or even movement. The simplest example of this is scanning a paper document or photograph and storing them as soft copies, or even converting a movie from a celluloid format to DVD.

Digitization in context of pharma:

In the pharma industry, it may mean converting a detailing folder into digital format and delivering a similar product message to the medical profession through a tablet computer. It may also include field staff reporting system or customer call planning, replacing the manual ones, among many others.

The changes that digitization may ensure are generally incremental in nature. It can help doing many routines much easier, at a lesser cost and in lesser time, facilitating business activities and operations. However, just as any other industry, digitization is unlikely to fetch any fundamental transformation – or help taking a quantum leap in productivity or overall effectiveness of a pharma business, as well.

B.   Digitalization:

Digitalization is defined as the use of digital technologies to change business models and provide new revenue generating opportunities with significant value-creation. It is, therefore, the process of moving a business into the digital world. Similarly, in pharma business ‘Digitalization’ or digital transformation can be achieved by digitalizing everything that can be digitized through integration of digital technologies in different platforms to create and deliver game changing values to patients and other stakeholders.

Interactive question and answer of ‘Siri’ – built into iPhone of Apple Inc. is an important example of digitalization – going way beyond digitization. Another interesting example of digitalizing business, creating path breaking values, can be drawn from the entertainment space – e.g. film and television industry. These businesses offer streaming or downloading facility for movies or TV-serials to viewers, anywhere at any time, at a reasonable price. A few important examples in this area may include, Netflix, Amazon Prime or Hotstar. For digitization, an equivalent example, as I said before, could be DVDs.

In fact, one of the largest vendors of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software and related enterprise applications – SAP made an interesting statement in this regard. It said, having done digitization for many decades, which has immensely increased the efficiency of its processes, SAP is now on its way to digitalization.

Digitalization in context of pharma:

The May 30, 2017 article on ‘Pharma Digitalization’, published in the European Pharmaceutical Review (EPR) says pharma business is undergoing a concurrent transformation on multiple, unrelated areas changing the whole product lifecycle from early drug development to manufacturing and patient care.

Consequently, improving patient outcomes is becoming a key challenge for the pharma companies. Garnering capability to provide real-time information about the disease condition to patients, and collecting patient data for care analytics to improve the treatment process, are emerging as critical ingredients for quantum value addition to pharma business.

Digitalization of business processes with integrated technology can help pharma players to address several major patient care challenges. These may include good compliance to treatment and effective chronic disease management, which can also help them to create hundreds of billions of dollars in value.

Reading the writing on the wall clearly, some pharma giants, like Novartis, GSK and Novo Nordisk have started investing in partnerships and new business models with technology companies, such as Google, IBM and Qualcomm. Even the traditional device manufacturers – Apple, Samsung and Nokia are now researching beyond the wellness products, looking to the patient care market. All this will substantially improve the patient care processes, where the patient care data will become the new source of innovation and competitiveness.

Likewise, digitalization of pharma sales and marketing would entail transformative value creation through integrated digital technologies in all the related functions. As stated above, it should reach right up to the patient and other stakeholder needs, meeting expectations in effective prevention, management and treatment of a a plethora of disease conditions.


To effectively compete and be winners in the new paradigm, Indian pharma players will necessarily need to step out of the comfort zone. Venturing into the complex world of digital transformative processes will eventually become an essential quality – not just for excellence, but survival too. This is a highly specialized area of qualified experts, both for training and hand-holding.

The clock has started ticking for pharma CEOs to lead from the front. In tandem, they would require empowering a team of the right people with hands-on experience, expertise and passion. The team should ideally consist of individuals, both from within and outside the organization. Their only mandate should be to translate the digital transformation of the organization into reality, with quantum value creation, within a given time-frame.

The choice is, therefore, not between digitization and digitalization, regardless of their often use as interchangeable words. The meaning of each is significantly different, which needs to be properly understood. Although, ‘Digitization’ is more visible in the Indian pharma industry than ‘Digitalization’, as on date, this is also a reality that ushering in digital transformation in any business, such as pharma, is not possible sans digitization – but one should not stop there.

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.