Sizing Up Pharma’s Tech Maturity

Amateurs or aficionados? We get an expert appraisal of the industry’s tech proficiency

In light of Amazon and Apple’s recent muscle flexing in the healthcare industry, tech investment titan Marc Andreessen’s famous observation that ‘software is eating the world’ seems more pertinent than ever.

Indeed, this is hardly eyebrow raising stuff in 2018. Tech outfits routinely help pharma companies to better understand how their customers and end consumers tick. And they offer the means for (bio)medical device makers, life sciences innovators and pharma to collaborate and develop new products and services.

Much of the opportunity lies in cutting-edge data analysis. Accenture predicts healthcare’s artificial intelligence market will increase from $600 million in 2014 to reach $6.6 billion by 2021. 

Pharma should not run before it can walk however. Speaking to technology providers hits home the enormity of the challenge at hand.  

The industry’s proprietary approach to software presents one such stumbling block, says Jim Streeter, Oracle’s global VP for life sciences strategy and a 20-year pharma veteran before that.

“We look at how to produce software that scales, is secure and meets the needs of all pharma companies while they want to customize what they do. Culturally I don't think the pharma industry realizes how much work it takes to develop enterprise software, they can be pretty myopic around that,” says Streeter. “They all want to do it their way because they think they have a secret sauce.”

The old model of developing software in-house presents all sorts of challenges, not least the resulting burden of ongoing development work, the need to ensure it remains secure and that it remains compatible with an ever improving and evolving technology stack.

“They need to recognize that they don't have to build things on their own or look to siloed technologies, but that they should start to standardize and allow for enterprise and not customize things,” says Streeter. “Every company has to deliver to the regulatory regime the same way, for example.”

Head in the clouds
The advent of cloud-based services in data storage and processing as well as cloud-based software development and provision is still an untapped opportunity for many, although attitudes are changing fast, says Streeter.

Adopting a cloud approach frees a pharma business from the need to be an IT company at the same time, says Streeter. “When you move to the cloud it is secure. Pharma can struggle to keep up to date with their security, software or tech stack and cloud takes that burden off them.”

As applications and work streams migrate over time to the cloud, the clunky process of replication will become a thing of the past, he says. “Ten years back everyone was developing and hosting their own software. That desire to bespoke everything is finally dying.”

The cloud’s USP is its ability to help harvest value from a range of real world data and increasing quantities of patient data, says Streeter. Scraping patient data from a variety of sources such as pharmacy databases and interpreting and presenting it using the latest AI, predictive analytics and enhanced visualization tools, is an emerging area where the tech and pharma sector has great scope to collaborate fruitfully.

Optimizing opportunities
Big data analytics now enable pharma companies to humanize the insights gathered on patients, says Maurice Straetmans, Vice President Healthcare at Tsquared Insights, a digital consumer insights agency. “Knowing that most of our decisions today, across industries including healthcare, are influenced by what we see and do online, it is vital for pharma to focus on truly understanding each step of the digital journey of their patients and doctors.”

By analyzing online search behaviors of patients and doctors anonymously, pharma companies can now glean new insights to better understand and reach their target audience, identify their needs, concerns, spheres of interest and touchpoints.

Crunching this data could answer critical questions such as: what is the true need of my patients? What do they do before and after they search on their specific medical condition or any given pharma brand? What type of content are they looking for and where can I find them? What is their profile at different stages of their online journey and how can I effectively reach them?

Sharing is caring
Tech players also see the world of data very differently to pharma, believing that freeing data unlocks its value, while culturally pharma tends to be more protective, says Streeter. “They have to figure out how to share data. There is a tendency for them to jealously guard their data.

“They are worried about how they collect it, what drugs they collected it with and feel they own that data. They do not want other companies to understand where they are with development, how trials went. The view is that data is theirs and it is gold.”

This is missing the chance to build value, owning a larger slice of a collective pie, and save money through sharing in appropriate ways, says Streeter. “If they share their data more on patients, there is greater value. With a bigger data set they can save a lot of time and effort and can stop running certain types of trials that may have been done by others already.”

There are some signs this is beginning to happen, says Streeter, with three or four large companies sharing their drug development results in oncology.  

Sharing data is likely to create value in the areas where healthcare and the life sciences are converging, for example in genomics, says Streeter. “Oracle has developed a competence in warehousing electronic health records and genomics data, which can help with the development of precision medicine.

Developing competencies in how best to gather and collate data will be central to the more patient-centric model that is emerging. “We are heading down a path towards being more engaged with the patient, to gather data from different places so we can learn from the patient, and employing this data to aid drug discovery, development and research,” says Streeter.

“What is interesting about big data is that 90% of it has been created in the last two years. And most of that data is consumer generated”, says Straetmans.

In a wider context it is necessary for pharma to adapt their business model and digitize their operational business segments. The importance of real world evidence and consumerism in healthcare is growing fast and so is the amount of data in itself: managing this explosion of data requires a partner that helps them making meaningful sense of it and generate actionable insights.

Those pharma companies who are winning in the marketplace today are those who have embraced digital transformation already and have embedded it into the organization. For example, look at the pharma companies who have appointed a chief data officer in the last few years. It demonstrates a high level of understanding and the importance they assign to it, says Straetmans. “They need to really become digital savvy. In the world of big data, you can explore everything.”