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Overcoming challenges in digital pharma to get to launch quicker

We take a look at why it can take pharma businesses so long to get their digital products into the hands of patients or HCPs, and what can be done to accelerate the process.

Article by Jon Hume, Commercial Director, at Graphite Digital

Getting to market with digital solutions quickly can be a real challenge for pharma businesses. Despite the organisation being set up to deliver medicines into the market quickly (without compromising on safety and efficacy), pharma companies experience genuine difficulty achieving the same for their digital products.

The situation is complicated, with many different factors to consider; from getting commercial support for your product, through to getting approval for release. It's no surprise to those working in the industry that things just seem to take a long time to make it into the hands of users.

But does it need to be this way?

What can you do to help ensure that your products get out there to start creating impact for you and your customers as quickly as possible? And what might be preventing you from working using truly agile and product focused methods?

Complex internal processes adding bloat

Developing a new therapeutic product is an incredibly complex endeavour that requires many different skillsets, checks and balances, and an enormous amount of risk management. This commitment to managing risks, whilst enormously beneficial to both the business and its customers, can lead to a culture where experimentation (outside of the obvious laboratory setting) isn’t the norm.

This aversion to risk, coupled with the size of most pharmaceutical companies can lead to huge amounts of bureaucracy and internal process. Neither of which are helpful when trying to rapidly develop a relatively low risk digital product or asset — where time to market, responsiveness to the needs of customers and flexibility would often provide the most value.

We’ve noticed that this can become particularly complex when looking to speak to patients or HCPs about digital products, where time-consuming and expensive processes that have been developed for clinical trials can slow down simple UX studies. Phases that should take days can turn into months long efforts where the majority of time is spent just seeking approval, rather than actually undertaking the research and providing analysis of the findings.

In order to combat this we recommend:

  • Developing a good working relationship with any teams that you’ll be working with in order to gain approvals that could block your upcoming launch.
  • Holding workshops with the different teams involved earlier in the project in order to identify areas where more expedient solutions or approval processes could be followed.
  • Working with senior stakeholders to get access to named resources in their teams who will have time allocated specifically for your project.

Lack of joined-up thinking between departments

The complexity of developing, testing, marketing and selling new medicines leads pharma companies to rapidly grow into very large organisations, often comprised of teams that have been working in silos for extended periods.

This can lead to a conveyor belt style approach within digital product development, with teams passing work on between phases from Marketing to Design (or an external agency), then into Development, and eventually maybe another team entirely for ‘BAU’ updates and maintenance in the future.

Working with this type of disjointed team — as opposed to a centralised digital product team comprised of all the relevant specialties working together with support from a dedicated product management function — is not efficient. IT can lead to issues with quality, and even the basic delivery of a functioning product.

If your business is going to get serious about delivering customer-focused digital solutions that deliver value for your business and customers, this type of blended team is a great way to make that happen in a sustainable and repeatable model.

Drive for “finishing” but not success

In our recent webinar, we asked Gary Holifield, Director of Digital Strategy at Amryt Pharma, to summarise some of the challenges around making your digital product design count. He raised a great point about the delivery mindset that plagues many pharma businesses:

“We live in a fast-paced world where pressures are constantly on us to perform and DELIVER yesterday. There’s a tendency to get “the job” done and then move on to the next ‘ask’ or ‘idea’. We tend to de-scope measurement nearly at the beginning. We say we will measure later, and then later never comes.”

There is an urgent need to evolve mindsets and definitions of success, encouraging teams to ‘look past launch’ and adopt a more iterative approach when it comes to digital products and services. As an industry we should be focusing on how to deliver value for our customers and the best way to quantify this, so we can understand their needs and how our products and services deliver against them — not simply race to get something online.

Your launch date is day zero of the real task at hand. So, let’s stop congratulating ourselves for making it to the start line, and put our energy into what comes next.

Lack of defined objectives and bad briefs

Without clear objectives for your digital product it will be challenging to measure it’s success (or lack of), and its unlikely that you’ll develop something that truly caters to the needs of your customers.

Before embarking on a digital product journey, it’s vital to understand what the role of the product will be, and to keep this front of mind when making decisions throughout the development. For example, without a clear understanding of what is most important for the product and for your customers, you could end up delaying or cutting entirely a feature which would have been valuable for your users.

If you are at the “blue sky” phase of coming up with a strategy for your next digital product there are some great tools that you can use to ensure these questions are answered before getting into solutions. These range from short innovation workshops or spikes, Design Sprints or customer listening or research efforts that will provide you with the knowledge you need to understand the purpose for your digital product and help to ensure that you can deliver something with value - as well as the detail you need in order to be able to understand how successful it is in meeting these objectives.

Chucking a quick brief together and sending it out might feel like a great way to tick something off from your to do list, but it’s a risky strategy that relies heavily on your experience and assumptions and that won’t often align perfectly with your customer needs.

Not using a specialist digital agency

We discussed in another recent article the best ways that you can build a model that allows for successful product development without simply relying on your usual partners just because it feels like that is the route that will create the least amount of friction.

There’s a huge amount that can be gained from bringing specialist skills into a project, for example, a pharma-focused research agency or specialist digital product design team (like us!).

Of course, we would say that — and we’re sure that your existing agency is fantastic — but are you getting the most relevant personnel assigned to your project? And do they have the specialist knowledge required to get you the best possible results and bring velocity to your project?

Marketing agencies are excellent at marketing, for instance, but for approaching complex digital product development you might want to consider holding them back for the customer acquisition piece that comes after launch.

Working with a specialist agency, or agencies, can help you bring your product to life in the most efficient and effective way possible. Agencies are used to collaborating with others in order to get the job done, and in most instances, it won’t create any additional work for you or your team.

By following this advice, pharma teams can evolve ways of thinking and working in order to overcome challenges and get their digital product into the hands of HCPs and patients to begin creating impact fast.

27th October 2022

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