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Closing the Pharma and Digital Health Divide


Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive-02-01-2019
Volume 39
Issue 2

Event-hopping from big biz to high tech leaves same takeaway: Adaptive leadership-not innovation-is key to future synergy.

Now, more than ever, there is a blurring of the lines between pharma companies and digital health companies. But, at the same time, there is also a fundamental, unspoken divide between the two business models that are causing those blurred lines to clash more often than align. 

This point was never clearer to me than in early January, when I did something a bit out-of-the-box for a trade publication that covers the pharma C-suite during the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco. I left J.P. Morgan for a day and attended the Digital Health Summit taking place as part of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). 

Gasp! Why would an outlet covering pharmaceutical executives leave arguably the biggest conference for that demographic to go to a technology show? Because, to understand the challenges of those we serve, we need to be in the trenches with them, if not one step ahead. 

Both digital health and digital therapeutics are going to be top-of-mind issues going forward for any executive in the pharma, biotech, or biopharma fields. In fact, in our January issue, I reported that some pharma companies were going to be splitting their time between J.P. Morgan and CES.

Fundamental differences

It really can be a confusing time for executives in the life sciences industry. Going from J.P. Morgan to the Digital Health Summit at CES, with less than 12 hours in between, the stark differences-and similarities-between the two camps were easily identifiable. Had that not happened, I don’t know if I would have felt such a culture shock between two spaces claiming to want the same outcome: Make a healthier population and cure diseases. 

In reality, however, there is a fundamental difference keeping these two spaces running parallel to each other instead of merging closer together. A major reason digital health is so hard for pharma is because, if the big ideas of digital health actually  deliver, it will help prevent some of the incidents that pharma is designed to treat. 

“If this were a pill, we wouldn’t have an issue,” said Bruce D. Greenstein, executive VP, chief strategy and innovation officer for the LHC Group, and former chief technology officer for the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). 

His remark came during a panel discussion at the Digital Health Summit, entitled “Boldly Going Where No Tech’s Gone Before,” and was referring to innovative health trends that tend to not to be covered by insurance.

Many similarities 

This disconnect can grab headlines, as proven by the fact I am writing about it. But one of the benefits of attending both conferences in the same week was also being able to see the similarities between the two spaces.

While some say that future of the industry is driven by innovation, I believe the future of life sciences, including pharma and digital health, is going to be driven by open-minded leadership. Whether it was the CEO of a small digital therapeutics company at CES, or a multibillion- dollar, well-established pharma giant at J.P. Morgan, the numerous conversations I engaged in during that week last month all had a common theme. It was strong C-suite leaders who were not only passionate about what their companies were doing, but were naturally curious about the future of the industry, understood the various players in the life sciences world, and really wanted to make an impact.

These leaders represent the future C-suite life science executive. While they do have an area of expertise, they are also savvy in a variety of roles. They are former CFOs who are now CEOs. They are scientists who are also engineers with an MBA. They are pharma-trained business development folks who are running their third or fourth biotech startup, and know how to successfully build a bridge between the two segments of the industry. 

Intrigued by these executives’ stories? I hope so, because these are just some of the interesting people who will be future guests on the Pharm Exec podcast and profiled in the pages of Pharm Exec throughout the year.


Michelle Maskaly is Pharm Exec’s Senior Editor. She can be reached at michelle.maskaly@ubm.com and on Twitter at @mmaskaly


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