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Patients Are Ready for a Digital Future, Here’s Pharma’s Path Toward the Next Growth Horizon


Recent advances from COVID-19 vaccine development put pharma in place to further grow relationship with patients.

Dharmendra Sahay

Dharmendra Sahay

Vijesh Unnikrishnan

Vijesh Unnikrishnan

For over a decade, the pharmaceutical and biotech industry has invested steadily in digital and connected health capabilities aimed at improving outcomes with patient-centric solutions.1 But progress has been slow, and confidence in the impact of digital health initiatives has dwindled. In a recent ZS survey, fewer than half of pharma executives reported generating value from their investments in digital initiatives broadly, including patient digital efforts.

While pharma contemplates its role in the future of digital health, other players are doubling down. New digitally native entrants are reframing the definition of outcomes more holistically in behavioral, functional, and clinical spheres that span therapy areas from diabetes to oncology. As the definition broadens, the opportunity to shape new markets is growing bright enough to attract record investments in digital health from venture capitalists and tech giants like Amazon and Salesforce. Over the last five years, more than 36 digital health companies have launched, creating billions in new shareholder value, reaching millions of patients, and delivering better clinical outcomes—a scorecard that exceeds pharma’s achievements in the same period.

To pull ahead, the pharma industry must make a rapid mindset shift—one that will change its asset-driven orientation to a patient-outcome focus. Leaders must take a leaf out of the book of customer-centric, digitally native companies such as Livongo or Hims & Hers and build a patient-first culture. In doing so, they must also remove organizational and technology silos, and develop platform-based solutions and services that align the organization’s operating model to patient centricity.

Given the industry’s improved reputation due to its role in developing COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics, healthcare consumers’ adoption of telehealth and digital care models, and a more favorable healthcare regulatory atmosphere, the environment is right for pharma to reboot its digital health aspirations. But to seize the opportunity, pharma needs to renew its approach to the digital journey and a commitment to patient-first, digital-first transformation.

Why smoother patient experiences lead to better outcomes

Better patient outcomes hinge on patients’ ability to navigate the healthcare system, keep up with their treatments, and proactively manage their health. But according to the Agency of Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) only 12% of patients are comfortable navigating the healthcare system overall, and half of patients feel their treatment objectives are not being met. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that more than 30% of patients who get a prescription fail to fill the first dose, and more than half of chronic patients stop taking their medication in the first year.

Closing any one of these gaps could have a significant impact on patients’ experiences, elevate engagement with their care teams, and ultimately improve their outcomes. This is especially true in the rare disease space, where the heavy disease and access burden can exacerbate the gaps in the patient journey, delaying diagnoses and care at the expense of patient outcomes.

What does a patient-first, digital-first model look like?

A patient-first, digital-first model centers on understanding the patient’s journey and solving the problems they face. In adopting this model, pharma must transform its focus from therapeutic assets to therapy area solutions via a portfolio of digital products and services that create a seamless patient experience. To do this, pharma companies will need an operating model that integrates data and leverages technology and a culture that commits to the patient as the primary customer.

A patient-first, digital-first model doesn’t mean focusing on patients or digital only. Non-digital services are needed to augment digital ones, and in many places, pharma’s connection with patients may be via caregivers, providers, and other ecosystem players. In this context, patient-centric solutions can include clinical decision and care management tools. A patient-first, digital-first strategy needs to adapt where the company may best serve as an enabler, catalyst, or collaborator in improving healthcare outcomes.

How pharma can realize its patient-first, digital-first vision

To bring about a patient-first, digital-first future, pharma leaders need to shift the focus from delivering therapeutic assets within a disease area to solving problems that are under their control across the patient journey.

To undertake this multi-year transformation, leaders should focus on five areas:

1. Tailor strategy by therapeutic area. The role pharma should play depends on whether there is a significant disease burden combined with limited incentives for other healthcare stakeholders to create overlapping or competing services. In therapy areas like rare disease, cell and gene therapy, or neuro-degenerative conditions, pharma has an opportunity to own and drive patient-digital solutions end to end—from delivering a digital front door for screening to a shared decision-making platform for treatment selection to remote monitoring services for ongoing care management. In other areas, pharma may serve as an enabler, catalyst, or collaborator in improving healthcare outcomes. In consumer-preference-driven conditions where patients are engaging in e-commerce channels to access care, pharma should find ways to introduce product-specific tools that enable faster diagnosis or access to specialists. In complex chronic conditions, where clinical decision and comorbidity management protocols are critical, pharma can catalyze innovations by offering disease-specific solutions such as digital biomarkers and behavioral health digital therapies.

2. Modernize patient services. Over the past few years, the user experience for pharma’s core patient support services—education, enrollment, access, and affordability—have fallen behind the standards set by digital and omnichannel healthcare provider interactions. For example, pharma-provided services support only 3% to 5% of the eligible patient population, largely due to the services’ lack of personalization and discoverability. To solve this problem, pharma can integrate both digital and personal interactions, connect the channel across patients and healthcare providers, and deliver a delightful user experience. When pharma implements a digital-first experience, we can expect to see 50% to 100% improvement in patient engagement and use of these services, with respective improvement in outcomes. This estimate is based on ZS benchmarks comparing personalized digital patient enrollment programs to traditional methods.

3. Drive a patient-first culture and operating model. Leaders need to create a culture that combines a digital-first mindset with the unique attributes of the life sciences industry. To do this effectively, the company should shift the lens from brands to patients. Often, this requires a new taxonomy of what success looks like. For example, metrics like net promoter score (NPS) and life-time value (LTV) should take precedence over market share and return on investment (ROI). Organizationally, the company must create dedicated capabilities with the accountability and authority to create, productize, and deploy digital solutions across functions, therapy areas, and geographies. Additionally, companies must reimagine compliance—not as a set of check lists to complete but as part of its DNA. Putting patient intent at the forefront lends shape to all processes and activities.

4. Build a digital core under one architecture. Currently, pharma’s technology infrastructure has many silos. But to drive integrated and personalized patient experiences, a digital core of data and analytics must remove silos and connect to last-mile solutions. With a seamless core, organizations can support intelligent, scalable experiences and services centered on a 360-degree view of what patients value and analytics that help personize their experiences. To create modular, interoperable app layers that talk to each other and exchange information securely, organizations need an agile and open technology architecture.

5. Find innovative ways to partner with other healthcare ecosystem players. Pharma can’t deliver a winning patient-first, digital-first strategy with a go-it-alone model. Success requires creative partnerships with other players in the healthcare system who have the access, trust, economics, and aligned interest in engaging with patients along their journeys from pre-diagnosis to treatment and management. To establish and scale these partnerships, companies need to practice agility in developing tech-enabled partnership models akin to what we see in software as a service (SaaS) businesses, for example, and they’ll need mature business-to-business go-to-market resources.

The digital pathway to pharma’s soul

Before pharma can realize its vision of a patient-first, digital-first future, it must reconnect with the patient journey and build the capabilities needed to deliver solutions that truly improve patients’ lives. This begins by presenting an inspiring vision that brings to life patient digital in the context of the portfolio, modernizing capabilities like patient services, removing silos across patient initiatives, and building the digital core—critical steps in a company’s patient-first, digital-first transformation.

This change represents a return to pharma’s patient-driven roots. Healthcare professionals—from pharma to providers and practitioners—are often motivated by a purpose to improve healthcare journeys. In many cases, the desire aligns with individuals’ personal health histories, a passion to cure diseases, or a drive to provide the best care possible.

By building a patient-first, digital-first organization—one that obsesses over each patient’s journey and methodically removes all physical and digital barriers to improve patient outcomes—pharma leaders can unleash innovation and growth with a renewed sense of soul and purpose.

A patient-first, digital-first approach in action

CareDx’s success demonstrates the impact of a patient-first, digital-first business model. CareDx’s aspirations grew from the desire to reduce the burden a patient encounters during a transplant journey, while addressing the unmet needs of their providers, partners, and caregivers. The company established its vision to address this via an end-to-end transplant portfolio of diagnostic assays, tech solutions, and services to address behavioral, functional, and clinical barriers.

CareDx’s solutions included patient identification and referral support, treatment planning, and management specific to the organ transplant center quality management analytics, transplant waitlist management, and transplant patient self-management. The company also invested in a scalable digital core using modern technology architecture and secure data interoperability standards. Lastly, the organization has visible commitment via its chief experience officer (CXO) and an operating model that supports patient impact and business results. By adopting a digital, patient-centric approach, the company reached a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 40%—a rate more than 30 times higher than the 7% industry benchmark.

Dharmendra Sahay and Vijesh Unnikrishnan, principals, ZS


  1. CB Insights, HealthXL Funding Data 2011–Q12022. Investment total is calculated from FY2011 through Q12022. Number of deals calculated for digital health investments by pharma companies​

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