As we enter the new decade, pharmaceutical leaders are envisioning a new era of innovation, one in which the discovery of life-saving treatments, enhanced patient experience, and improved overall health will be driven by the transformative power of digital technology.
As it stands, the pharma industry lags behind other highly regulated industries, such as banking and insurance, when it comes to successful digitization. But there are immense opportunities for our industry to leverage technology. Here are three critical steps pharma companies can take to fully embrace the digital future:
Stop the clock
It may sound counterintuitive, but if we want to leapfrog into the next era of innovation, pharma companies must first pause and develop a strategic vision for adopting new tech. This will allow us to lay the groundwork for companywide (and industrywide) digitization. For example, we must prioritize data management if we want to get the most out of our A.I. investments. This includes organizing anonymized datasets for millions of patients (with consent) into interoperable data pools from which we can pull out patterns and trends, and then share it with health providers and insurers.
Perhaps one of the most promising—and important—areas where data management can play a transformative role in the industry is regulation. Cloud-based data systems can drastically speed up the drug regulation process. Currently, companies submit data to regulators via disjointed platforms and in closed templates. Cloud-based systems can streamline regulatory submissions by using a common data storage platform, which will help get treatments to patients faster.
Raise the technology quotient
Even companies with the most detailed technology and data strategies won’t make headway on digitization efforts if their people are not equipped to succeed in the new digital era. We need to focus on raising the technology quotient (TQ) throughout the entire workforce—from the lab to the factory floor to the executive office.
We need to let go of our decades-old ways of working and build cultures that encourage experimentation and accept and learn from failure. After all, failures are essential steps on the path to breakthroughs. We must also deploy training programs that help people augment their own capabilities with the technologies they work alongside.
The payoff of these efforts will be huge. In the past, for example, R&D labs were full of people at lab benches for eight hours a day, processing samples by hand. Recently, I visited a lab where a robot operates 24 hours a day, processing 200 different proteins at once. With a machine taking over a time-intensive and repetitive manual task, the scientists are free to focus on more complicated aspects of their work. To be effective, those in the lab have to learn to work with such robots, sharing tasks and trusting the results. It means setting aside longstanding ways of handling lab processes, which requires a new mindset and capabilities.
The end result of these efforts? We’re getting to breakthrough moments more quickly.
Avoid superficial intelligence
The pharmaceutical industry is driven by innovation. We can transplant organs from one person to another, use an individual’s own cells to fight disease, and even 3D print body parts. But companies are too often rushing to appear to be ahead of the curve, pursuing bold partnerships and investing in “trending” technologies that are undeniably impressive but aren’t necessarily addressing critical medical needs.
One example of this is the excitement caused by a study of whether the Apple Watch could detect atrial fibrillation in a group of 400,000 people. Because there was no control arm, the study’s impact on health outcomes can’t be properly ascertained, pointed out health journalist Larry Husten in STAT.
It’s easy to succumb to the temptation to partner with the company that will build us the splashy tool, rather than work with the company whose outcomes align with our own objectives and whose capabilities fill in our gaps. But some businesses are making the right long-term choice.
Consider the health tech companies using analytics and A.I. to match patients to clinical trials, potentially reducing the time to find patients from many months to days or even minutes. An effort like this may not seem like a breakthrough innovation, but it is a critical contribution to accelerating the process of getting medicines to patients.
Similarly, pharma companies can bring their deep understanding of biology and access to vast amounts of appropriately protected patient data to their engineering partners, who can then perfect the right algorithms and solve real problems through these concrete insights.
Pharma companies must take the time to align our strategies for adopting technology to the needs of our business, address the cultural issues that prevent us from harnessing the full power of digital tech in our workforce and workplace, and avoid chasing the next shiny object. As an industry, we need to have the courage and preparedness to abandon our old ways and begin building a fortified foundation of strategic digitization.
From personalized trials and treatments for new treatments, to drone-delivered medications, to a more sustainable manufacturing process—the possibilities on the other side of this disruption are endless.
Paul Hudson is CEO of Sanofi.
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