Digital Pioneers

How forward-thinking companies are scaling the heights of digital transformation

Digital is fundamentally transforming the healthcare landscape, with profound consequences for pharma’s business model. Customer experience too is disrupting old ways of working, especially as pharma embraces its most recent incarnation, the patient journey.

Put together, the already-powerful concept of the patient journey is being turbocharged by the new digital and cloud-based technologies that form the internet of medical things, impacting the entire length of the pharma value chain, from R&D to commercial.

As pharma, like every other sector, races to understand what digital technology will mean for its business, the industry runs the risk of being “eaten for lunch”, says Armin Furtwaengler, Global Senior Medical Director, Health Care Innovation, at Boehringer Ingelheim.

“On the one hand, the pharmaceutical industry is very conservative but, on the other, it is driven by fear of digital disruption,” he says, pointing to the advent of new players such as Apple with its ResearchKit and IBM’s Watson Health.

“Quoting Joseph Alois Schumpeter’s concept of ‘creative destruction’, the new does not grow out of the old but appears alongside it and eliminates it competitively.”

He cites familiar examples of once-thriving firms overtaken by disruptive technology, from Kodak to Blackberry. But what does digital health mean for pharma? Is the end nigh or will the digital ‘revolution’ be more of a gentle evolution?

“I define digital health as the convergence of the digital and the genomic revolutions with healthcare and society,” says Furtwaengler in a statement that brims with implications. “The internet of medical things will change the relationship with our customers, but who’s our customer?

“Is it the pharmacist? Is it the physician? Is it the payer organization? As an industry, we have got a lot of things wrong; we talk about customer focus and patient-centricity, but the customer is the patient, and they are empowered to change things,” he says.


For Panos Papakonstantinou, Head Digital Commercial, Europe at Novartis, the approach to customer experience and digitization is built on two fundamentals. The first is for patients to have a “very active role” throughout the process and involves building “patient personas”, recognizing how to innovate while having dialogue with patients while not missing out on your objectives.

Creating such ‘personas’ – not in itself a new concept but one that is vital for building familiarity and deep insight – involves energizing patient associations, talking with patients, seeing what they are actually doing and what they are facing, with a view to uncovering any hidden value. In particular, it includes augmenting the patient journey with what Papakonstantinou refers to as the “sentimental element”, an understanding of the parts of the journey that patients like doing or those they don’t.

“It is important to grab any ‘aha’ moments and any insights that may have been being overlooked,” he says. “This is something that doesn’t hit you the first time you go through this process. You have to try to re-think the full patient journey – together with patients – making sure you are capturing individual characteristics that might, or might not, be insights.”

The second fundamental is around how to take a solution to market successfully, for which you need to adopt a “build, measure, learn” approach, he says. “Essentially, you put something out there that is more of a prototype and continually build and expand as you learn more and more throughout the process.”

A crucial element in any strategy is to ensure that insights are returned to the brand. For Céline Genty, VP Customer Excellence EMEA at Janssen, that means genuinely listening to what the customer has to say. “Are we really doing that?” she asks, adding that it is just as important to listen to voices inside the organization. “If you hear people saying ‘I know my customers’, you are in danger, because you can never know your customers enough.”

A successful solution should have four elements, says Papakonstantinou. “It needs to be functional, must work reliably and consistently, should be easy to use, and provide ‘emotional feedback’ and value to the patient.” Initially, companies should seek to get a part of each of these factors right and measure performance separately against all four, he says.


Inevitably, digital has consequences for the sales force, warns Genty. “Are the sales reps just promoting your brand? Do you do digital separately or do you integrate the sales reps into the center of your digital model? What is your operating model in front of your customers?”

Companies need to be mindful of legitimate fears among sales reps, she says. “Often, sales reps view digital as a ‘terrible fear’, worrying that it will replace them.” This can translate into very practical issues such as difficulty in collecting doctors’ email addresses if reps are loath to share them.

Sales reps should be at the center of the model in one way or another, she advises, although companies may not necessarily want them orchestrating multichannel interactions. This approach to engagement through delivering the right content via the right channels is paying dividends for Janssen, says Genty, who adds that they have been able to prove its impact on customer preferences, customer loyalty and market share. In addition, there is a direct correlation between customer satisfaction – measured by net promoter score (NPS) and other factors – and top-line sales and market share.

A new frontier

Digital transformation requires a pioneering spirit, embodied by five characteristics. They are:

1. Pioneers declare big, hairy goals – In the same vein as US President John F Kennedy’s 1961 Moon Shot announcement, where he set out his intention for the US to put a man on the moon within a decade, companies should think (and speak) big and go beyond incremental advances. To parse JFK, choose to go to the Moon not because it is easy but because it is hard. 'Big hairy goals' was also the theme of a recent keynote presentation by Bruno Villetelle, Chief Digital Officer, at the eyeforpharma Barcelona conference.

2. Pioneers experiment – There are many ways to dip a toe into the vast waters of technology, from internal innovations hubs to external collaborations, but they should exhibit cutting-edge curiosity. What’s more, exposing as many people as possible internally to the experimental process will help catalyze that all-important mind-set change

3. Pioneers push boundaries – Healthcare today is not a single industry, it’s a mash-up of pharma companies, VCs, regulators, payers and entrepreneurs. Success will come from working within an ecosystem of partners. The interfaces are where the best and most interesting innovations emerge.

4. Pioneers are all in – Piloting and top-dipping can only go so far, successful companies will embed digitization in their DNA, in the way that they do business. Create room for people to explore new ideas and they might surprise you.

5. Pioneers never, ever, ever let go – You cannot succeed without failing first. Failure is a necessary step to success but one many people are not comfortable with. Developing a culture that expects to fail and which copes (and learns from) failure, is essential.


This article comes from our Trends in Marketing magazine which includes insight from Sanofi, LEO Pharma, Sandoz and UCB. Download your free copy here;

Since you're here...
... and value our content, you should sign-up to our newsletter. Sign up here