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How to Build a Strategic Digital Health Function within Biopharma


Key takeaways on digital health from the 2021 JP Morgan Healthcare conference.

During the 2021 JP Morgan Healthcare conference, I had the opportunity to virtually sit down with Karan Arora, chief commercial digital officer and global vice president of AstraZeneca, Francesca Wuttke, chief digital officer of Almirall and Martin Kelly, CEO of HealthXL. We discussed strategies for building a strategic digital health function within the highly regulated, and often slow-moving, biopharma industry.

This conversation centered around our experiences approaching digital and key considerations for effectively building a strategic digital health function within biopharma. Here are key takeaways from the discussion:

1. Co-creating digital solutions is key. Get the C-suite onboard to feel ownership of digital product success.

Digital within biopharma today is a bit like the wild west era of the turn of the millennium with combination products and connected devices. Today’s digital health biopharma innovators are experiencing their own pioneering as they advance digital health algorithms and Software as a Medical Device.

One risk involves siloed digital efforts, like many of the device groups early on. Groups are moving fast to build, and many times leaving integration as an afterthought. A conscious effort needs to be made to prevent siloes so as not to impair future integration and performance of the digital solution. Think about connectivity to personalize adherence interventions and regulated algorithms to drive patient identification.

Many in biopharma are trying to add digital to current product lines. While this retrofitting is possible, organizations should incorporate digital into their upstream thinking and make it part of their DNA. Peppering digital on top of a product later will not have the same impact. Support from the C-suite will help make this shift in thinking possible and accelerate digital efforts.

2. Demonstrating value early on enables digital’s expansion and increases impact.

Biopharma’s traditional models are being disrupted as heavy investments in R&D are showing diminishing returns. Meanwhile, pricing pressures are increasing and operating models are shifting. Digital can play a role in increasing the scope of access to both personal and non-personal channels and offer a competitive advantage that can help offset pricing pressures.

Initial funding for any new programs must come from somewhere. Internal stakeholders may view an investment in digital as money that cannot go elsewhere – an advertising campaign, for instance. This makes it important to frame early ROI appropriately; you can’t compare a novel digital solution to purchasing a TV spot.

How do you get around the challenge of demonstrating ROI of digital in a way that resonates with peers? Take away some of the mystery by framing the idea of digital health development within biopharma’s traditional product development process: By likening the development and testing of digital health products to the typical R&D cycle, internal stakeholders will understand the testing and iteration that comes with digital health product launches. Knowledge can bring familiarity, which can lower resistance.

Similarly, demystifying digital by stripping its value proposition down to its basics can also help obtain executive buy in: growing the top of the funnel, driving intensification of disease (putting patients on the right therapies) and early adoption of therapy. This focus adds concreteness and alignment across the commercial teams, along with better focus.

Be absolutely clear on the problem digital is solving and how success will be measured. Further, identify team members, constituents and especially a business owner on the commercial side who will take on the responsibility—and accountability—for the digital solution.

3. Proof of concept goes a long way.

Seeing is believing. It can be hard for biopharma executives to reimagine products as digital when they have lived in a world of traditional drugs and devices. Creating a proof of concept product can go a long way in showing the idea and making digital health more “real.”

Consider speed to market from commercial’s perspective. Commercial organizations can be impatient, and rightfully so. They need to deliver results quarter over quarter. Try demonstrating how digital can provide value around patient engagement by running a quick development sprint to put a proof of concept app in front of an executive team. Once the team can see it working, they will feel some attachment to it and the questions move from “if” to “how” and “when” can we scale.

4. How to approach digital budgets.

Traditional biopharma companies invest 20% in R&D. We have seen big bets placed without much proof – investing millions, even billions, of dollars in a new drug. Yet partly because digital is new, even marginal budgets for a digital product require lengthy discussions and much convincing.

Bring the supporting research to your budget discussions. A Capgemini study cited that just a 10% adherence improvement could generate an extra $124 billion in annual revenues globally across biopharma. Improving adherence or expanding patient populations can positively impact revenue.

A more recent HealthPrize article stated similar findings: The U.S. pharmaceutical industry alone forfeits an estimated $250 billion annually in potential revenue due to medication non-adherence. Extrapolated to the global pharmaceutical market, revenue forfeiture is estimated to be $637 billion, or 59% of the $1.1 trillion in total global pharmaceutical revenue.

It will not happen overnight, but biopharma should approach investing in digital products or therapeutics in the same way they invest in traditional biopharma products and drugs.

The race to digital is not new and there have been learnings along the way, both positive and negative. Many pilots and digital health “experiments” you hear about focus on the failures. To expand and get buy in, highlight examples of success. Regulated digital health solutions will be a key driver of biopharma’s ability to improve outcomes and differentiate its products. Broader adoption of digital health into the core products will open more opportunities to succeed.

Kal Patel, MD, is CEO and co-founder of BrightInsight

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