At the source

The top 3 myths of ‘going digital’ (and the realities)

By Melissa Fassbender

- Last updated on GMT

(Image: Getty/metamorworks)
(Image: Getty/metamorworks)

Related tags Digital mHealth Technology Clinical research Pharma

The top three myths of ‘going digital’ relate to the industry’s self-image, the perceived role of technology, and current market conditions – still, digital is not a fad and is here to stay, says industry expert.

Kris Wadia, an interim executive and senior advisor to the life sciences and health care industries, poses The 80/80 Rule​:

“Simply put, 80% of any end-to-end process for a given function today can be digitalized and the result should be 80% cheaper to operate with equivalent (or better) quality, reliability, and speed.”

To explore further the myths and realities of “going digital,” we caught up with Wadia to discuss how these are feeding into the industry’s uptake challenges – and how this might evolve over the next five years.

There is a lot of talk about ‘going digital.’ How would you define this?

Kris Wadia photo large
Kris Wadia

Given the absence of a global standard, there are multiple definitions of digital today which contribute to delays with adoption as corporate executives attempt to identify what digital means in their specific context.

My working definition of ‘going digital’ is an enterprise-wide mindset that continually looks at the business ‘outside in’ to identify alternatives for improving margins, customer satisfaction and employee engagement by combining advances in technology, business models and concepts. 

What has been driving this trend?

Several trends have driven the push towards digital. First, there are multiple proof points of increased revenues and reduced costs from early adopter industries that have implemented digital using an omnichannel, customer-centric approach.

Second, the range of solutions available today cover improvements to a single function all the way through to enterprise-wide transformations, allowing corporations to choose what suits them best.

And, finally, there is the competitive element, as the c-suite of any given corporation realize their peers are adopting it already to differentiate themselves with customers and as a credible alternative to continually poaching expensive talent.

What are the top three myths about ‘digital’ that are impeding its uptake? How does the ‘wait and see’ mentality feed into this?

The top three myths, broadly speaking, revolve around the pharma industry’s self-image, the perceived role of technology, and current market conditions.

Let’s take each one in turn, beginning with those who believe digital is not applicable within the pharma industry because it is ‘special.’

Yes, pharma is to be respected because it saves lives. It is also subject to a unique regulatory regime. But below the surface, pharma’s operations are a combination of processes and technologies which means they can be simplified, standardized, industrialized and automated, like every other industry.

Next, the perception that digital is a technology play which should be led and managed by the IT department and which has been created, in part, by software providers appropriating the term to showcase their offerings​.

As my definition suggests, it is better viewed as an enterprise mindset, owned by the C-suite, driven by operational business leaders, and enabled by technology.

Finally, current market conditions may be contributing to the ‘wait and see’ attitude​.

The healthy demand pipelines for pharma support services, particularly the larger CROs, understandably keep them busy, even when a modest investment in digital mind-share would have resulted in quick wins.

Global equity analysts, however, have indicated that their high demand may be a function of the limited choice available to Pharma companies for complex and global clinical trials. The arrival of, say, digital-literate mid-size CROs with a global footprint could be the downside of the ‘wait and see’ approach.

What are the some of the first steps that need be taken to ‘go digital’?

Deloitte’s 2018 Global Life Sciences Outlook summarizes the success formula for innovation in life sciences as ‘Embrace, Build, Grow.’

Embracing exponential changes in technology across all parts of the enterprise is a significant first step. This may be achieved by educating senior executives to a standard where they are digital-literate enough to collectively create and evangelize their digital strategy.

The digital strategy should be an integral component of the overall business strategy, outlining how opportunities and risks can be managed, and cascaded throughout the enterprise for meaningful adoption over time.

Another option might be to launch an in-house digital center of excellence, with representation from across the corporation, resulting in the creation of dozens of internal advocates to showcase the proof points resulting from the first wave of pilots.

Finally, pharma service providers may choose to follow the lead of their clients such as Novartis and GSK whose CEOs have appointed chief digital officers from other industries with a view to challenging legacy thinking around the art of the possible within pharma.

What are the main points of failure and the consequences for pharma service providers?

It appears that no quarterly earnings call is complete without some reference to ‘going digital,’ but without significant publicly available data points, it is hard to gauge progress.

Pharma, on the other hand, have responded to pressure from payers, regulators and advocacy groups to prove economic value, not just clinical efficacy, via tie-ups with digital academia and technology start-ups.

If the results of pharma’s digitalization outpace those of its service providers, the consequential loss of revenue for the latter could be both significant and at short notice.

Another point of failure is likely to be the lack of open and fact-based discussion with middle management about the perceived loss of their experienced and loyal team members.

The reality is that digitalization, at least at the robotic process automation end of the scale (compared with artificial intelligence and machine learning), would free up a significant number of these industry veterans, allowing them to be cross-trained to cover shortages elsewhere in the corporation.

Against today’s backdrop of a fierce war for talent, digitalization would produce more job wins than job losses, and the greatest supporters are often those employees whose former mind-numbing and repetitive tasks are now undertaken by software robots.

Digital across various applications

Wadia examines digital applications through the lenses of multiple customers: 

If pharma​ is the customer, digital enables e-detailing that reduces the number of medical sales reps whilst improving the productivity of the remainder to achieve above-average sales per physician contact. 

If the customer is the clinical trial patient​, then offering secure and validated transmission of clinical data from a wearable that eliminates the need for travel to a trial site is a great answer. 

If the customer is the pharma head of R&D​, then real-time updates and access to electronic trial master files adds value, whilst also ensuring readiness for short-notice inspections by regulators. 

If the customer is an employee such as a site monitor​, hand-held devices that photograph and file documents; offer detailed checklists with direct reference to the relevant SOPs; and plan physical site visits in an optimal manner powered by centralized risk-based monitoring, allows even junior resources to become productive quickly.

What do you expect pharma service providers to face in the next five years?

Having recently presented at the Jefferies 2018 Global Healthcare Conference as part of a panel, it was interesting to note that the panelists had differing points of view on all topics except one.

Namely, in the next five years, technology would augment humans working in pharma or pharma support companies in ways that would be unrecognizable from today’s perspective.

My personal predictions include the arrival of at least three new breeds of game-changing competitors.

They include global technology giants such as Apple and Google with their platforms in digital health; global technology consulting firms such as Accenture cannibalizing significant parts of the CRO value chain in areas such as pharmacovigilance and risk-based monitoring; and start-ups whose superior artificial intelligence and machine learning-based outcomes could replace even the best medical practitioners employed by service providers.

Corporations who plan to ‘buy’ their way into the future (through acquisitions and mergers) using their current cash reserves and access to cheap debt still run a high risk of operational culture clashes between their analog ownership style and their digitally-literate acquisitions.

Ironically, the last prediction for the future is one that goes back in time, namely the increased usage of global sourcing, commonly known as offshoring.

Although an integral component of many industries, especially financial services and telecommunications over at least three decades, pharma service providers have only dipped their toes in the global sourcing ocean through isolated pockets of talent hires in lower-cost locations worldwide.

This fails to leverage the geopolitical, currency and workload balancing benefits, which could be made available if these teams were managed as part of a professional global delivery network, which could even include low-tax enterprise zones in the home country.

The only fail-safe prediction, however, is that digital, with its proven outcomes, is not a fad and is here to stay.

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