Design Thinking in Pharma

September 1, 2018
Adam Taicher
Pharmaceutical Executive

Volume 38, Issue 9

How industry can benefit from this new view on innovation.

Everybody’s doing it. Hiring Chief Innovation Officers. Looking for ways to “disrupt.” Trying to reinvent or reimagine their business though they’re not sure what that means or where to start. Are these initiatives just passing fads or actually a smart investment for companies, particularly those in the pharmaceutical industry?

The short answer: it depends. When design thinking is incorporated into the business model, and when innovation itself is not the singular goal but a measurable benefit of a pursuit, pharma businesses can truly differentiate themselves and recognize a valuable impact. Design thinking is an emerging practice that helps organizations take a fresh and honest look at innovation and improves how companies identify and meet their clients’ needs. Design thinking can revolutionize an innovation agenda and, in turn, a company.

Rather than traditional methods of product and solution development that begin with an end state already in mind, design thinking centers on empathy and achieving a true understanding of the target audience. A design thinking-led approach acknowledges and addresses existing pain points and works from those to improve user experiences. Design thinking brings forward breakthrough frameworks, tools, and processes that start with a client’s needs, not just the needs of the business. It challenges companies to put themselves in the shoes of their clients/patients to understand their perspective, rather than only what a business feels it needs to stay competitive. For example, companies rush to build flashy apps-but is that really what the customers want to improve their user experience? Design thinking challenges companies to start with the why instead of the how or what, to not just jump to innovation for the sake of innovation.

Pharma stands to benefit from design thinking in a number of different ways as illustrated by the following applications:

»  Onboarding a new pharmacy for the pick-up and distribution of a new drug traditionally entails mountains of paperwork. How can manufacturers and distributors make this process easier for those purchasing their products and encourage them to remain a long-term client? Through observation of the onboarding process from the client’s perspective, a clear and thoughtful understanding of needs could significantly improve a user’s experience.

» With the constant pressures of R&D costs, demanding shareholders, and watchful Wall Street analysts, pharma executives are challenged to cover costs and move product. Taking a design thinking lens requires leaders to see skyrocketing drug costs from the perspective of a newly diagnosed patient facing what seem like insurmountable medical expenses. 

Might your company consider alternate ways for patients to pay to help alleviate financial anxiety while facing a serious illness? This is clearly not a simple problem to solve, particularly with drug theft making its own negative impact, but a more empathy-driven, human-centered approach changes the dynamic of the issues at hand and helps break down silos through a common cause. It may be possible to streamline access to critical treatments while still meeting business and shareholder objectives.

» Serialization is typically seen solely as a cost by pharma executives who must now devote time, resources, and budget to track-and-trace compliance requirements. Viewing this process as an opportunity rather than a regulatory exercise opens the doors to multiple ways to improve business operations. Once implemented,  drugmakers will have access to a tremendous amount of data, including the status of each sellable unit, how long a product remains at each supply chain node, and how quickly it moves from manufacturing to packaging to third-party logistics (3PL) to distributor. By using the outputs of serialization, emerging data, and feedback from supply chain employees, companies can help to identify areas for operational improvement and even help to optimize the entire supply chain network.

When people hear the words innovation, disruption, and design thinking, they often think of the Apples and Ubers-new generation, consumer-facing giants that are changing how we live our lives. But real success comes not only from sleek new products or apps but from an understanding of a customer’s needs and preferences across a wide range of client-facing ways.That’s why a challenge-based, empathy-led business approach applies just as much to Bridgewater, NJ, and Raleigh-Durham, NC, as it does to Silicon Valley. In fact, no industry is riper to benefit from instilling a design thinking mindset than pharma, and many have already embraced the shift in perspective. 


Adam Taicher is a Partner and Head of the Life Sciences practice at Navigate



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