The next few years will require life science companies to bring consumer-facing digital services to the core of their corporate competence, rather than leaving it at the periphery of their business capabilities.
In most areas of our lives today, consumer power and the capabilities of modern information technologies means organizations that serve us in a truly personalized way dominate our attention and wallets. As societies, we are still learning how to handle this new world of large-scale use of highly personalized data. The trend is so pervasive, we should recognize it as a fundamental shift in how citizens and organizations interact. But it is already abundantly clear that personalized information we share (wittingly or unwittingly) with private and public sector organizations is fundamental to the market mechanism, which complements science and innovation to continuously enhance the products and services which enrich our lives. Healthcare is no exception.
The personalized, online, automated and data-driven nature of 21st century healthcare is bringing new types of healthcare provision to the fore. Historically, only doctors and nurses in the healthcare provider needed access to our data in order to serve us. In the immediate future, it is inevitable that personal data will increasingly be held and used — with appropriate, informed consent — by various types of life sciences businesses, on a daily basis at the patient level within the digital healthcare ecosystem. The simple delineation of life sciences “upstream supplier” businesses, which need handle only aggregated or depersonalized data, and the “downstream” healthcare provider, which handles personal data to provide a personalized healthcare service, can no longer hold.
The pharmaceutical and medtech industry is still often wary of embracing this role in patient-level data and digitally enabled services. There have been many fine examples in recent years, but also a lot of errors and blind alleys. What the next few years will demand is for life science companies to bring consumer-facing digital services to the core of their corporate competence, rather than leaving it at the periphery of their business capabilities.
Despite investment in recent years, “consumer grade” digital and data expertise is, arguably, still not at the core of the pharma and medtech industry’s business models.As key partners in the healthcare ecosystem, most companies need to invest in building their own human and technical capabilities to achieve the same level of trusted, dynamic, direct-to-consumer engagement as digital heavyweights like Amazon, Apple and Virgin do, or as “non-digital native” businesses such as banks, supermarkets and utilities are successfully doing. Whilst many pharma industry traditionalists might scoff at the very idea, it’s no coincidence that these digital disruptors are pursuing their own digital healthcare strategies and aim to own a part of the healthcare value chain.
There are a multitude of topics companies will need to get better at to thrive in a consumer-centered, digital and data enabled age. There is no quick fix, and the ROI from consumer-facing digital health investments will continue to be hit-and-miss. Here, we focus on some “thorny but addressable” opportunity areas. Mastery of these has become part of business-as-usual in many other sectors, but in 2021 they are still often peripheral or patchy in many otherwise brilliant pharma companies.
Biopharma and medtech companies can learn from the “gods of the digital age” to form trusted end-customer relationships through personalized digital services. It’s certainly the case that many pharma leaders buy in to these ideas in principle, but in our experience, there is a long way to go for them to become second nature for pharma.
Most consumers, including in their patient personas, do like solutions that have been personalized to them. So, let’s be clear, personalization with permission is a good thing. True personalization involves trust and an exchange of value (“what’s in it for me”). As an illustration, a firm can broadcast generic, impersonal content on a website, acting like an “internet 1.0” company from 15-20 years ago. Or it can create a webapp with smart algorithms to enable the user to tailor, say, a symptom tracker to their own preferences and their own inputs on diet and lifestyle, perhaps with a trusted connection to their doctor’s systems. A future world of holistic, science-led, consumer-centered healthcare needs the makers of the therapies and diagnostics to be bold – to not leave the field open to the digitally-native players who are rapidly establishing lead positions in these customer-centered, digitally-connected, intelligently-automated ecosystems. When you’re worried about a health question, whose content and app would you really want on your phone – the science firm’s or the Silicon Valley tech firm’s?
Personalizing pharmas’ services based on trusted exchange of data is a pattern which should be brought to the core of product and service design. The shift from “a drug company with a few apps” to a holistic healthcare company is a big leap, but an important one. It takes courage to do so, especially for a conservative pharma company. The thinking should start in the development stage; for example, what are we going to put into our clinical trials and studies strategy – is it the drug or is it a drug/digital holistic proposition? And it means elevating research, analysis and design of users’ lived experience (which now has highly mature, proven skills and techniques honed in sectors such as retail, consumer and financial services), to the same level of corporate importance as the medical and scientific core of pharma’s mindset and skill base.
Most biopharma companies today are on a journey to modernize their commercial (HCP facing) operations. That’s important but it’s not enough. It’s time to think more “customer’s customer” and act accordingly, ensuring “digital-led consumer” capabilities are central to the company’s in-market commercial models. Patient advocacy and engagement as aggregated corporate-level mechanisms are not enough, because it decouples essential learning from the day-to-day in-market activities. Digital innovations are often locally-led by the most innovative affiliates or therapy teams, and do not lend themselves to rapid scaling, or adoption pan-product. Companies need to get better at systematically bundling their services in the market and doing so in agile ways to meet different and continuously evolving demands. This is about thinking in terms of platforms of human and technical capabilities rather than tactical digital and data products. A starting point is developing a blueprint for what works and scales across therapies, countries and previously siloed internal functions. Importantly, this applies across all touchpoints from symptom and lifestyle apps to safety reporting.
It is also critical to value and measure the end customer’s holistic lived experience, and not just the clinical outcome. This is bound up in the drive for Real World Evidence, but it needs to be more fundamental than just authorization and reimbursement - it needs to be part of a product optimization cycle driven by generative and ethnographic user research, design thinking and agile product releases. Most pharma companies don’t really know how to measure or act quickly and systematically on these measurements of experience across their portfolios of therapies, services, geographies and customer touchpoints. Such measures should be holistic and C-suite visible.
Pharma’s embracing of end-customer thinking has been moving forward, albeit slowly, for some years, but if ever there was a time to be bold, to double-down, and to make some big bets, it surely is the next 2-3 years as we rebuild post-pandemic.
Simon Bates is a life sciences expert at PA Consulting.