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.