Pharma’s Late Realization

Technology, by and large, is impacting almost every part of our life. Interestingly, some of these, like mobile phones and desktop computers, found their initial uses, mostly as trendy status symbols of relatively rich and high ranking corporate honchos, before getting merged as essential tools in our everyday life, as it were.

Today’s digital world empowers people to virtually doing anything – literally, such as getting an online education, communicating with people – both in audio and video format, getting any routine medical test or household work done, transferring money, making any bill or other payments, buying travel-theater-concert tickets, or ordering any item online from home or wherever one chooses to, besides umpteen number of other things. A large global population now spends more time on communication in the virtual world, than face to face communication with physical presence.

Similarly, application of technology, especially digital, has radically transformed for the better, the way several companies in many industries have rewritten their respective playbooks of critical business processes. It starts from the generation credible data of humongous volume, critical analysis of those before initiation of the planning process, spanning across the endpoint of making consumers pay for the products or services willingly, while achieving both financial and non-financial business goals. In tandem, available cutting edge digital technology is being leveraged by these companies for developing both new products and processes, including the rejuvenation of many stagnating businesses.

Whether the pharma industry, as well, has started leveraging digital technology optimally or not, was discussed in the A.T. Kearney Report – “New Medicine for a New World, Time for Pharma to Dive into Digital”. It aptly captured the overall situation in this area for pharma a few years ago, by saying: ‘Pharma’s customers increasingly live and interact in a digital world. The industry has been dipping a toe in the digital waters, but now it’s time to take the plunge.’

In today’s article, I shall discuss on the current-status in this area, as some respected pharma veterans, still nurturing ‘traditional thought pattern’, keep displaying skepticism in this area, though indirectly. Nevertheless, directly they seem to keep their feet in two boats, probably for obvious reasons.

A disruptive change that can’t be ignored:

It’s a reality that we now live in a digital world. The speed of which is fast gaining momentum, and that too as a critical disruptive change agent. Interestingly, this is happening despite the existence of a digital divide, which I discussed in one of my previous articles.

That this trend is so recent has also been underscored by the above A.T. Kearney Report. It reemphasized, the way we interact has changed more in the past 10 years than in the previous 50, and this change is reshaping the society itself. It’s hard to believe that apps, social media, and everything that surrounds them date back to no earlier than 2007. With the expansion of interconnected Internet-enabled devices, the boundaries between the real and the virtual are increasingly getting more obscure.

When it comes to pharma industry, as various research studies highlight, an intriguing cautious approach for embracing digital prevails, unlike many other industrial sectors. This is despite facing numerous challenges in navigating through external business environment, and meeting stakeholders’ changing expectations.

“But the industry has now reached a tipping point: it has to put an end to hiding behind the challenges of engaging with its stakeholders digitally and stop treating digital as an add-on to existing operations. Rather, it needs to embrace a digital first engagement model with fundamental consequences for its organization and capabilities,” suggests the above A.T. Kearney report.

This fast-evolving disruptive change, I reckon, can only be ignored at one’s own peril. Nonetheless, the good news is, some pharma players have now slowly but surely, started embracing digital to transform their business processes, in search of excellence.

‘Digital India’ initiative to facilitate the process:

Recognizing the increasing importance of digital even across the public space, on July 2, 2015, ‘Digital India’ campaign was launched by the Government of India. This is intended to ensure the availability of public services for all, by making everybody in the country digitally-empowered. The campaign is expected to make India a leader in digitally delivering health, education and banking services, according to information released by the government.

It is generally expected that the creation of a robust digital ecosystem within the country, would facilitate the Indian pharma players, as well, while leveraging this state of the art technology for a quantum leap in business productivity.

The current status – Global pharma industry:

The July 11, 2017 article titled, “Pharma turns to big data to gauge care and pricing”, appeared in the Financial Times, highlighted an interesting point. It described, how the global pharma industry, which has been slow in responding to the fast-evolving digital environment, is now realizing its critical importance. This reckoning gets more strengthened, as it confronts tough external challenges, such as pricing pressures, huge volume of patient data, and more empowered consumers. The article also points out, how digitization has started changing the way pharma players used to interact with doctors, patients and other important stakeholders.

The seriousness in approach of several global pharma majors in leveraging digital technology, to take a quantum leap in the business productivity, is fast increasing. It is evident from the leading drug makers seeking out different skills and personality traits in employees to lead such digital transformation.

Moving towards this direction, Germany based Merck appointed its first chief digital officer, last year. The person holds a degree in biomedical engineering, with a tech background. Following a somewhat different approach, Boehringer Ingelheim – Europe’s biggest private pharma player, hired a new Chief Financial Officer from Lufthansa, who oversees a new digital “lab”, recruiting data specialists and software developers.

Similarly, Swiss drug major – Novartis, also appointed its global head of digital business development and licensing. The head of Human Resources of the company has reportedly expressed, “We’re already seeing how real-time data capture can help analyze patient populations and demographics, to make it easier to recruit patients for clinical trials, and how real-time data-capture devices, like connected sensors and patient engagement apps, are helping to create remote clinical trials that aren’t site-dependent.”

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) too, reportedly employs more than 50 people to run webinars with physicians – a “multichannel media team” that did not exist five years ago. It has also begun hiring astrophysicists to work in research and development, keen to deploy their ability to visualize huge data sets. According to GSK, these qualities are especially important as the company seeks to use artificial intelligence to help spot patterns and connections amid a mass of information.

That said, global pharma industry still has a considerable distance to cover before it exploits digital technology as successfully and automatically as many other sectors, the article concludes.

The current status – Indian pharma industry:

Veeva Systems Inc.– a leader in the cloud based software for the global life sciences industry, has well captured in a recent report the current status of the Indian pharma industry on the adaptation of digital technology in business.

The report titled ‘The Veeva 2016 Industry Survey: Digital in Indian Pharma’ focuses on the current state of application of digital technology in the business processes of pharma companies in the country. The survey represents the views of respondents from commercial excellence, marketing, sales and IT at domestic and multinational pharmaceutical companies operating in India.

It highlighted, though the pharma companies have remained mostly Rep centric, several of them now realize the importance of increasing focus on customer engagement. Moreover, while the desired access to important physicians has gone down, expectations of the Health Care Professionals (HCPs) have increased, significantly. Alongside, the Government is bringing in more regulations, besides price controls.

The report also captures, though digital technology is slowly making way in the pharma marketing tool kit, it has been more an incremental effort to various Sales Force Excellence projects of the respective companies.

The key findings of the study are as follows:

  • Nearly two-thirds of respondents agree digital is yet to become a part of their overall pharma DNA, and one-third believe digital is well integrated within their organization.
  • While companies have initiated digital activities in various silos, one-third of the respondents believe these are tactical in nature, rather than strategic.
  • 21 percent of respondents feel digital should be driven by management, along with 24 percent voting for Digital Marketing. However, with customer relationship at the core of business activities, 31 believe Sales Force and Commercial Excellence are also responsible for the transition.
  • With integrated digital strategy, pharma companies aim to increase customer touch points through multichannel (93 percent) and improve customer engagement (79 percent). The other benefits of integrated approach are a greater competitive advantage, reduce execution gaps, improve content creation and delivery, and enrich customer data.
  • 59 percent of the respondents believe the industry will see a digital transformation in the next 1-3 years.
  • 69 percent of survey respondents agree it’s time for Indian pharma to think about digital strategically.

The top two challenges that pharma companies face in institutionalizing digital were identified as

  • Organizational readiness
  • Lack of digital as a strategy

This latest India specific survey brings to the fore that pharma players will have to move over from patching up old systems or building incremental solutions. They need to realize that digital opportunity is not an incremental approach.

Keeping this in perspective, the study suggests that pharma companies’ approach to digital needs to change substantially in India. This is essential to truly leverage the power of digital that will open the new possibilities to more meaningfully engage, communicate, and be relevant to all the stakeholders for business success.

The traditional face to face “visits” are just not enough for desired productivity, and deriving an adequate return on investments. On the contrary, a time has come to critically evaluate whether various Sales Force Excellence programs are  producing increasingly diminishing rate of return on investments, Therefore, this communication process ought to be augmented with innovative digital interventions, for the reasons explained earlier.

With a few organizations leading the way, digital is expected to become a mainstream conversation, ultimately. Thus, Indian pharma players need to think about digital from a long-term perspective, as opposed to the current way of setting short term goals, which may actually become barriers in your digital success, as the survey concludes.


Pharmaceutical industry, in general, is yet to keep pace with many other sectors, first in acknowledging the game changing power of digital technology, and then adopting it with a crafty application of mind. Nevertheless, the good news is, some drug companies, especially in the global arena, have increased their focus in this area, as elaborated above.

In India, as the recent survey indicates, over 66 percent of respondents admit that digital is yet to become a part of the overall pharma DNA, while the remaining ones believe that digital is well integrated within their organization. Interestingly, even in that group, many would require moving over from patching up old systems or building incremental solutions. It is important for them to realize, sooner, that digital opportunity is not an incremental approach.

‘Digital India’ campaign of the incumbent Government, assures fast strengthening of desirable digital ecosystem in the country. Expected consequential strong wind on the sail must be made use of, effectively. As the saying goes ‘better late than never’, pharma’s late realization of the game changing power of digital technology is much better than no realization at all, which many naysayers indirectly pontificate, of course, under a facade.

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.

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.