Pharma’s Place in the Digital Space
Sanofi’s Chief Data Officer expounds the possibilities of digital and the role of the CDO in this burgeoning landscape
We have all heard it said that pharma is a digital dinosaur, that nimble Silicon Valley start-ups are whizzing ahead to explore exciting new frontiers, while pharma lumbers along, barely breaking a sweat.
While Sanofi’s Chief Data Officer, Milind Kamkolkar, agrees that there’s rarely smoke without fire, pharma may not be as prehistoric as some observers think. “I’ve done some consultant work with other ‘modern industries’ and we beat ourselves up too much. The big issue for all industries is that, today, business is technology, and tech companies are eating our business.”
Tech companies have the edge over pharma because digital is built into the base of their business models and woven into the fabric of their operations, he says. In pharma, that job falls to the CDO. “Right now, we treat the CDO as an evangelist and glorified cheerleader, but the larger role is around industrializing digital as an operating model.”
To truly embed digital in the business, companies need to better manage their investments, he says, with the drive for that coming from the top, he says. “The CEO must be committed to industrializing digital; it can't be an afterthought. It can’t be, ‘Let’s hire a CDO and let them do all this wonderful work’. That person can facilitate and lead the change, but you need to build the organization around it.”
Digital Centers of Excellence can provide support but they are often given “a small pot of money from which they have to beg, borrow and steal from different brand teams, franchises or groups,” says Kamkolkar – an approach that “doesn't work if you want to industrialize digital”.
There are two paradigm shifts in pharma that are helping to legitimize digital operations as a revenue generator, he says. The first is beyond the pill initiatives. “The shift is from brand into therapeutic area support, care pathways and truly understanding the science – in understanding why certain effects happen across different patient populations and how they manifest themselves into customer experiences with their physician or healthcare systems. Digital can facilitate this level of engagement.”
The second shift is that pharma is claiming a stake in the healthcare apparatus, resulting in a “horizontalization of the industry”, says Kamkolkar. “We used to think of healthcare as a vertical industry but that is no longer the case. There are numerous industries claiming a healthcare position, engaging with patients, physicians or regulators. They are not coming from within the classical boundaries, and they are forcing us to rethink, in a very positive way, our current business model.”
What about the multichannel customer experience space? “Has anyone really cracked the shell on that? I am not entirely sure. There are some unique use cases – let's call them niche winds – that help cement belief, but what gets in the way is the need to understand the levers for a digital operating model in order to make it relevant for your customer base in a particular market. I am not sure that is fully understood.”
Marketing teams could also better reflect the current multichannel climate, he says. “Most members of our marketing teams today were once reps, but reps are just one of many channels now. Personal relationships still make a difference but rep-led engagement is already eroding.”
Pharma also needs to improve how it manages data pools. “The one asset we don't treat with the enough respect and diligence is information, even though it is a highly monetizable entity,” he says. “We need to start putting greater financial discipline on what we do with data. At Sanofi, we have created a framework called 'Fair', humbly borrowing from the R&D world of ‘fair’ data standards – findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable. The number one issues for most of our business users, internal or external, is that we simply don't know if we have the information or not, so the ability to find information is the biggest issue.”
Automate to innovate
With the analysis of data, is the future automated? “Yes and no. You still need scientific context,” says Kamkolkar. “One of the things we are implementing is patient ontology based on knowledge graph (Google’s advanced search engine capability) and machine learning capabilities because the way medical people speak about a disease is not the way patients speak about it. For example, a patient might say, 'Oh man, my head is about to explode,’ and it's not a physical explosion, rather a headache. But how do you capture that effectively?”
Automation will move us towards seamless synchronicity, he predicts. “We spend countless hours defining ‘master-data’ entities; when it comes to the customer, for example, one country might say ‘HCP’ while another says ‘physician’, and in the olden days of master-data management, you had to code that in as two separate entities then create a joining table that allowed you to understand it all. Today, you can use knowledge graph capabilities to remove the barriers – or politics- of dictionary management. This is where I see automation having a massive role to play.”
Another area where sophisticated digital tools can help eliminate language barriers is with literature reviews. “Many of us produce publications and have a very different ontology set under which that publication or disease recommendation was made. Even if it comes from industry standards, by the time it gets implemented in companies, it's heavily configured. As a result, when you go back and do a literature search – the definition of a gene in one company may not necessarily be the same in another. The beauty of knowledge graph technology is that it can see how different companies define it.”
“We’ve got an app for that”
Looking forwards, where does Kamkolkar think pharma should be heading in the digital sphere?
Apps are a “grossly unexplored area”, he says, particularly because the apps that have gained the most traction have been in therapeutic areas, which has proven problematic. “Companies have often been too afraid to accept data on other medications from other companies. Part of it has to do with the regulatory binding that we are in today, and the risk-reward mechanism also plays into that.”
Another issue that’s impeded the development of apps is that the “first iteration of apps weren’t developed with a commercial model in mind. The easiest way to check is to see when the app was last updated – if there wasn’t a product mindset behind the app, it was a complete waste of money.”
Key questions need to be asked, he adds. “Do you have a product management group that is looking at the app as an entity that contributes to P&L? Is it something that is going to improve either the customer experience or the patient journey?”
Failing to ask these questions during the development process – regardless of the initial buzz an app generates at launch – may see the app falter afterwards. So, how do you sustain momentum? “The brand manager may have changed and the app is floating around in the app store with no one saying, ‘Hang on a second, do users really want to use it this way? What do we need to change to make it a more compelling experience?’ That rarely happens,” laments Kamkolkar.
An app’s shelf-life is often linked to employee incentives, he adds. “Often, these apps are created to fulfill an objective and advance a person along a career path. So, the objective is met and they’ve got their bonus, but then what? CDOs need to work closely with HR to create a plan that incentives people to persist in the world of digital health.”
Kamkolkar offers a promising yet pragmatic vision for the future of digital. “I hope that 10 years from now, it is just part of business and is a new revenue stream. That should be the goal. To achieve that, you need people who really understand digital economics, who know how to consolidate initial successes so there are not just niche successes coming through.”
It is also high time for a culture change, Kamkolkar says, rebuking the tech industry's lack of diversity in general. Diversity will drive better outcomes, he stresses.
“Digital and data, in many ways, are the operating levers of how we work in the future,” Kamkolkar affirms. Yet, it’s not just down to pharma companies. “Payers can’t do it alone, regulators can't do it alone and we certainly can't do it alone.”
Milind Kamkolkar will be sharing his insights at the eyeforpharma Barcelona 2018 event in March.