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  • Christy Cheung

Is Pharma ready to join the Digital Era?

Updated: Jun 22

Disclaimer — The content in this blog post is solely a collection of my thoughts, observations, and research that I have done. It is not meant to be a reflection of the company, in which I am currently completing my fellowship program.


With my passion in digital health and innovation, I have been exploring how I might integrate this interest with my role in the Medical Affairs function. In my earlier blog posts, I touched on the use of different technologies in Pharma, for example, using artificial intelligence across the product’s life cycle. AI can improve efficiency in clinical trials, drug discovery and development, and diagnostics, but these are all upstream of a drug reaching market, and more importantly, our patients. What about in Medical Affairs? How could digital be leveraged?


Let’s take a step back and broadly define Medical Affairs. It was only until I started working did I begin to grasp the many responsibilities that fall under this function.


Within a Pharma company, there are typically two pillars, which run semi-independently. Those two pillars are the Commercial and the Medical functions. Depending on the companies and/or the country’s policies, you may find these two functions collaborating closely or not. The Medical Affairs team supports the products from a scientific and clinical perspective, which is evidence-based, non-biased, and non-promotional. To highlight a few responsibilities, you may find the team contributing to the following:

  • Medical education of and creating relationships with patients, physicians, and allied health professionals

  • Providing efficacy, safety, and indication updates of their products

  • Working with clinical trial and/or study data to inform burden of disease, real world patient outcomes, and clinical and economic value

  • Collaborating with healthcare professionals on research studies and/or publications

My question, as I began working, was how can I bring ‘digital innovation’ into this role?


There are certainly more challenges to implementing digital within the Medical function than I had initially thought. There are barriers from a Regulatory and Legal perspective, but we also have to consider how receptive our stakeholders, namely, patients and healthcare professionals, would be to having digital as part of our interactions with them. Despite my immense enthusiasm for digital innovation, working in the industry has helped to provide context in terms of the challenges underlying digital. I am fortunate to be in the position that I am in now, leveraging my knowledge in pharmacy and healthcare, to improve science, to improve clinical understanding, and to improve outcomes; yet, I believe there is more value we, in Medical, can bring to our stakeholders, and technology is part of what can enable us to do exactly that. While some resist the digital movement, there is absolutely a growing demand to pursue digital within this industry. Technology has great capabilities and will grow along with the next generation of patients and healthcare providers, but we must tread wisely and employ an approach so as not to compromise patient care or neglect users who are not technology-oriented.


With that in mind, I went ahead to see what guidance there was out there on how to bring digital into the industry. I found a number of articles and frameworks on this topic, which speaks to the interest in this area, and in the next few paragraphs, I will distill it down for you and hopefully, this will generate some creative thinking.


First, where is the demand coming from? The reimbursement landscape is changing and we are hearing more about the shift to outcomes-based care. This means that payors — the government, public and private payor entities — are reconsidering the current model. It is not enough to show efficacy and safety in randomized clinical trials; payors want to see a continuum in value, value being provided to their patients in the real world, and throughout the course of disease. That is where digital may come into play. Offering a digital component to the traditional pill allows for real-time data to be continuously collected and analyzed, with the goal of improved monitoring of a patient’s condition. Payors aside, patients are key stakeholders in the face of this digital era. We have seen a significant rise in health literacy, which has empowered patients to become more engaged with their health. When surveyed, more than 85% of patients said they were confident in their ability to take responsibility for their health and knew how to access online resources, with which to educate themselves. They want to understand their medical conditions and medications, the good and the bad; they want to ask questions and they want to have a say. The old-fashioned, paternalistic nature of healthcare interactions has been replaced by a partnership between provider and patient, certainly a more respectable and considerate approach to practice with. Patients will not place blind faith in the prescriber’s decision. They will do their due diligence and compare different healthcare products and services, and this is why, quality of information has become that much more important. Within the Pharmaceuticals industry, then, emphasis on engaging with patients with the right information should be a strategic priority.


We seem to have a good awareness of the need to move towards digital, but what seems to be the bottleneck right now, is the lack of consistent understanding of digital and its impact within the industry. Pharma executives are keen on rolling out digital initiatives, but they struggle to determine which ones to implement and how to scale up, and perhaps, more importantly, they are racking their brains over the definition of digital success. In the end, there is still a business to run, which means that digital will have to prove its value. When scavenging through articles, I came across some common themes for what constitutes digital success.

  • The wealth of data we have in our industry will provide insights to inform better decision making

  • Digital capabilities will improve the relationships that currently exist between Pharma and both patients and clinicians, creating more effective and wide-ranging conversations

  • Incorporating digital into existing operational processes will improve efficiency across all business functions

There is so much more that is worth mentioning in terms of digital strategy in Pharma, but the bottom-line is that, with the public taboo that clouds over Pharma companies, heavy scrutiny from government and other payors, Pharma needs to leverage digital capabilities to enhance transparency and to provide real-time support to each and every stakeholder. I believe that there is a need for Pharma to be more open-minded when it comes to digital and to take risks to experiment with digital initiatives, all, of course, in line with the company’s own products, future pipeline, and overall business priorities. The truth is, we do not know what digital success is and it may be different for different companies, but Pharma companies will have to take a leap of faith, because the healthcare industry is incredibly dynamic, and the only move is to adapt with it.


Thanks for reading, as always!

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