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Bridging pharma’s digital gap

Although still playing catch-up, the industry is being transformed by technology


It’s safe to say that pharma has been met with a proliferation of new challenges and triumphs within the past decade. The rise of sophisticated technology assisting in the creation of personalised medicine would be naming just one example that came as a great leap for both the industry and mainstream medicine. But in true pharma fashion, that leap was not without its side effects.

The classification of patients into subpopulations that was birthed from these tailored therapies saved time, money and resources as a direct result. But this brave new world also saw the introduction of increasingly complex conversations between pharma and its multiple stakeholders on the nature of communication.

“As an industry, pharma’s fundamental job is to develop ground-breaking therapies, but it is also their job to push that information into the healthcare community,” Paul Shawah, Veeva’s senior vice president of commercial strategy, told PME at Veeva’s recent European Commercial & Medical Summit in Madrid. “If patients’ healthcare providers are unable to prescribe medication or are even unaware of which treatment therapies are available to their patients then pharma, in a sense, has failed.”

Frictionless conversation

To succeed and ensure the industry can efficiently communicate with healthcare professionals is, Paul says, where the pharma industry today is most challenged.

“We see digital playing a big role in making conversation exchanges between the life science industry and the HCP more frictionless.” But riding that digital disruption wave brings about another challenge affecting the industry today, one that is all about adaptability.

With the emergence of cumulative waves of advanced technology, most industries have found themselves witnessing the reduction of certain job roles, and the pharmaceutical industry is no different. The sales rep in particular - the industry’s favourite metaphorical middle-man and the pillar of every pharma marketing strategy - has been the centre of attention for a while, and the ‘death of the sales rep’ has been talked about for more than a decade. But, according to Veeva’s VP of commercial strategy Jan van den Burg, not only is the sales rep very much alive, but the role itself is evolving with the times.

“We’ve seen multiple roles for the rep”, begins Jan. “The rep as the data scientist and the rep as the orchestrator coordinating the entire interaction and engagement with an HCP, and this is nothing new. But we predict that reps will play a part in the overall system, both to manage key accounts and in executional roles. We will also see the rise of the hybrid rep who has both face-to-face and digital meetings with HCPs,” he says.

Paul adds: “As there are people treating people, we will always need reps. We will always need someone to co-ordinate and to provide information.”

Pharma’s slow technological evolution could ultimately bring about more and more reps based not in the field but in an office, effectively managing customers through online and digital channels as opposed to driving to sites to make physical visits.

Naomi O’Connell, Shire’s head of advertising and promotion, global operations, admits that the digitisation process needs to improve throughout the biopharma industry. “Digital transformation is definitely happening, but at a slower pace than in other industries. We are working to catch up - I think that’s where technological solutions do help greatly, but we still need further advances to best tackle the issue.”

Overcoming uptake barriers

So why is pharma lagging so far behind in terms of technology? Aside from the need to negotiate regulatory barriers compliance rules, David Bennett, Veeva’s European VP for commercial content strategy, has other suggestions.

“Reducing cost is a key driver. The old way of doing things is very expensive. For agencies to do a lot of work at a global level, and then to have that work repeated in every country around the world - we’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars in wasted money in the context of top 20 pharma.”

The pharma-agency relationship is another important element in the mix when it comes to efficiently incorporating technology within pharma. Typically, companies have a set of relationships with different agencies, and the agencies themselves have a different set of compliance systems that they implement. The next challenge is how to effectively distribute information to different countries, which brings both translational as well as financial repercussions.

“We need to take content and do cleverer things with it, because a lot of money that would be going towards generating these great creative programmes is being spent on a very inefficient process. Having the rep as the curator is a key part of the next stage of evolution,” says David.

Doing something different with digital

It isn’t just the role of the sales rep that is effectively getting turned on its head. Pharma’s marketing workforce is also receiving a well overdue makeover in a bid to step up its digital game. Just last year GlaxoSmithKline hired its first chief digital and technology officer, Karenann Terrell, but this wasn’t just a normal run-of-the-mill appointment. Terrell carries a strong background in retail, having previously been Walmart’s chief information officer for six years. Around the same time Novartis also looked outside the industry for key digital talent, creating a new chief digital officer position and filling it through the appointment of Bertrand Bodson, former chief digital and marketing officer at Sainsbury’s Argos.

“The desire for customers to have personalised content and experiences is apparent and if you think about it, the retail experience is the same,” says Veeva’s Jan. “What Novartis and all the other pharma companies are trying to do is distil the myriad content that they have available at their fingertips and transform it into something useful, which is what customers want.”

On the other side of the coin, there is not only a shift in the kind of information customers want to receive but there is also a change in how they want to receive it. Marketing campaigns are placing more emphasis on designing for handheld devices, and as much as the ever-changing landscape of technology is a major player in this shift, the millennial uprising is another contributing factor.

“The reason that pharma companies are putting these chief digital officers in place is to comply with the changes. The intent is driven firstly by the fact that more than 50% of doctors are now millennials, and they are not going to put up with being dealt with in the old way, and secondly that pharma companies themselves are hiring millennials, who do not expect to do things in the old way,” explains David.

But what HCPs want and what the industry is offering in terms of technology exposes a digital gap. Finding the solution to that gap will prove to be one of pharma's next big challenges.

Article by
Gemma Jones

is PME's reporter

28th February 2018

Article by
Gemma Jones

is PME's reporter

28th February 2018

From: Sales



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