Digital & Innovation

AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Roche and Novartis leaders deep dive into the promise of digital health

Health Industry Hub | May 25, 2022 |
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Digital & Innovation: The pace of transformation in healthcare continues to accelerate by the increased adoption of digital solutions that expedite patient access to therapies and expand the delivery models of care. As the concept of digital therapeutics takes hold, how are the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies embracing digital medicine?

Digital leaders from AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Roche and Novartis joined the panel discussion at yesterday’s ANDHealth Digital Health Summit on the future of digital health.

Kumaran Mani, Associate Director Business Development at AstraZeneca, Krishan Thiru Cluster Medical Director of Developed Asia at Pfizer, Kim Smyth, Head of Digital and Data Transformation at Novartis and Daniel Thurley, APAC Informatics Network Head at Roche joined Adam Wardell, CEO of Previsior to discuss Big Pharma on Digital Medicine – The Way
of the Future or a Necessary Distraction

To take charge of creating and implementing a strategy that accelerates and improves the company’s digital capabilities, Pfizer appointed a chief digital officer in 2018. The company is focussed on digital health within disease awareness and information, screening and diagnosis, and therapeutics.

Krishan Thiru, Cluster Medical Director of Developed Asia at Pfizer, said “This was the first time that we had ‘digital’ as a standalone function with the purpose of demonstrating to all parts of the company globally that we see it as core to how we operate. Digital is being adopted at all stages of the lifecycle of a medicine and the patient journey. We are using machine learning and AI to help analyse data sets in drug discovery and clinical development. We have also been using electronic data capture (ECRF) and electronic case report form (eCRF) which were successful in accelerating the COVID-19 vaccine development program.”

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Daniel Thurley, APAC Informatics Network Head at Roche, commented “When considering the past 125 years of Roche, the last 18 months has seen the most significant change in how we’re approaching the ecosystem. We have not had a salesforce for a year and a bit*. We’re going through a process of integrating informatics across Roche pharma and diagnostics businesses which will create a huge opportunity for leveraging the significant data and information across those groups. We have an ambition to deliver three to five times the patient benefits at half the cost to society in the next eight years. That will only be achieved by digital.”

According to Kumaran Mani, Associate Director Business Development at AstraZeneca, the company’s digital focus includes omnichannel marketing, digital engagement with GPs and digital health with respect to disease awareness, diagnostics and compliance in disease management. The company looks for opportunities to partner with digital providers and diagnostic devices to bring the ecosystem players together.

Kim Smyth, Head of Digital and Data Transformation at Novartis, noted “We look at digital transformation much more broadly than just digital therapeutics. We’re looking at how we can marry it to products across the entire value chain, and also the cultural and capability shifts required to reimagine medicine.”

Digital is shifting the business model of pharma and impacting traditional commercial models.

“I don’t think digital will be as successful as possible if it’s just about product sales and internal efficiencies. Clinicians and patients need to get a win from it. I would love to see Medicare rebates for digital tools because it is providing a benefit to patients in the healthcare system.

“We’ve shown through some of the Australian partnerships we’ve had that clinicians can reduce consultation times and really target the conversations they need to have with individual patients. They can see data about where they are failing in educating patients… so there are these benefits that can be gained beyond sales and efficiencies. I think there needs to be a recognition of investment or digital should be reimbursed,” Daniel Thurley commented.

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Similar to other big pharma, Pfizer is aiming to deliver breakthroughs for patients faster and with greater impact. Krishan Thiru said “All parts of the value chain are being transformed. The traditional model of having large sales teams, going out knocking on doors, communicating their three key selling messages and asking doctors to prescribe their product doesn’t work as well as we thought it did. More importantly, it doesn’t deliver the health outcomes that our customers want – including healthcare systems, payers, healthcare professionals, and most importantly patients.

“We’re moving to a digital model, but the key driver is not to optimise efficiencies. It’s to deliver those health outcomes. You need to demonstrate the impact of your medicines beyond clinical trials, in real patients in the real world,” he said.

As with many disruptive innovations, digital health requires the development of novel business models and partnerships to succeed. The most effective way for pharma companies to achieve these benefits is to partner with multiple, compatible digital health start-ups.

Kumaran Mani noted “I encourage digital health start-ups to think beyond the investment of dollars because pharma companies can contribute with therapeutic area expertise, access to clinicians and patients.”

Kim Smyth agreed. “There is the legacy of a perception that pharma will pay [for digital health start-ups or solutions] and step aside. One of the things that I have learned to look for in partnerships is asking what we can offer in addition or in place of money or incentives. That is key to getting the strategic fit and also key to long term sustainability of the partnerships.”

For most pharma companies the first priority is to instil an agile mindset and ways of working within the digital organisation.

Krishan Thiru said “Traditionally pharma is a slow moving, risk averse beast. A lot of people who are in a pharmaceutical company have long tenures so to get them to change their way of thinking can be challenging. Although they’ve heard about digital health, they wouldn’t know anything about this ecosystem. We’re trying to transform that mindset to get our colleagues to be more curious about the potential digital opportunities. This is essential because that’s what our customers want from us.”

Daniel Thurley commented “COVID-19 has created the momentum and if you look at some of the things that the Labour government promised before election, I certainly think Medicines Australia is going to be holding them accountable to deliver on the ambitious modernisation, infrastructure, digital changes going forward. It’s time that [digital health] stops being a distraction and starts becoming central to medical care.”

*Roche Australia’s transformation in 2021 led to changes in customer facing roles with the Primary Point of Collaboration (PPoC) model as the new way in which employees engage with healthcare professionals.

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