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Smart Thinking blog

Insights and expert advice on the key issues facing today’s pharma marketer

Pushing all the wrong buttons

The technology responses to this pandemic have fallen far short of expectations

Technology was going to be the saviour.

Not the technology of science and drug development which, incidentally, has been a saviour during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the ‘other’ technology. The Silicon Valley-type technology.

These big, strong companies would swoop in on their white horses like knights in shining armour using cloud computing and artificial intelligence to fight off this wretched scourge.

And the manufacturing technology with all its Six Sigma Green Belt certifications and the world-class companies who would assuredly use tried and tested methodologies for problem-solving. Collectively, the leadership of big tech and these manufacturing powerhouses would shine a light during this moment of global darkness.

Poor planning and manufacturing missteps

It began with the bungled contact tracing apps. Remember those? Of course you don’t. Because none of them was ever used in any meaningful way. And then the proliferation of the software platforms that allowed for virtual healthcare.

They were ok in the end, and virtual care is certainly here to stay for stable, chronically ill patients who don’t need to trudge to their doctor’s office every six months for a routine series of questions and answers that could just as easily be answered via video call.

But it was not an easy pivot to these new software platforms. And what about some of the testing technology back in the early days of the pandemic? Equally forgettable. And there have been more than a handful of manufacturing missteps, including the recent disaster at a manufacturing facility in Baltimore, Maryland during which 15 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine were cross-contaminated with the AstraZeneca vaccine and had to be destroyed.

Running out of glass vials, nasal swabs and needles, without which storing, diagnosing and actually inoculating people is impossible, has become a flashpoint for the poor planning. And what of the challenge surrounding the manufacturing of the cold-chain refrigerators that are needed to store some of these vaccines?

And now, alas, we have arrived at the circus show that is the vaccine launch. Clunky online booking systems that crash within minutes of going up have become the hallmark of the roll-out in this part of the world. And in the months ahead, we can look forward to big tech ‘solving’ the digital vaccine passport technology gap too.

We await this milestone with bated breath. Yes, I know human error happens. And I know that technology is glitchy and that’s just ‘par for the course’. And in some cases, the best efforts of those involved would not have been able to eliminate supply chain hiccups or raw material shortages.

Lessons to be learned

But there are important lessons to be taken from this situation that cannot be ignored. Firstly, when we are building technology for
the healthcare system and its users, people who have actual healthcare experience and who understand the patient/physician journey must be part of the team designing those solutions and involved in user testing.

There are too many non-healthcare companies and people trying to implement solutions in this fast-moving and complex space. And that is leading to problems. I know this sounds ivory tower-ish, but it is true.

Generalists cannot replace specialists in moments like these. No matter how much we wish it to happen. One need look no further than the aforementioned tragedy at Emergent BioSolutions which resulted in those 15 million Johnson and Johnson doses being tossed in the garbage. Apparently, it has been known for well over a year that Emergent BioSolutions has been suffering from quality control issues that have been under FDA investigation.

Secondly, we have learned that technology works best when it is considered in the context of both its environment and human behaviour. Drive-through vaccination sites work in some geographies due to favourable climates and access to vehicles.

Contact tracing apps work better in some jurisdictions because there is more inherent trust in the government, local populations are more compliant with government edicts and have higher rates of smartphone ownership.

Virtual health platforms are as much about provider comfort and familiarity with technology as they are about patient comfort and familiarity with technology. The upshot is that technology on its own is not a solution. Technology is a solution when it works or solves a problem within the environment it is intended to be used.

That technology has helped us get through this pandemic is undeniable. That it has fallen short of its own lofty self-proclamations is also undeniable. As we emerge from this period and prepare for the slew of post-mortems on how we handled this pandemic, it seems the most urgent lesson for future generations is not to ensure that machines think, but that humans do.

Rohit Khanna is the Managing Director of Catalytic Health, a healthcare communication, advertising & strategy agency. He can be reached at: rohit@catalytichealth.com

4th June 2021

From: Healthcare

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