Digital health and big pharma: A tale of two companies

January 19, 2016 ctheodoropulos

Digital health strategies have the potential to increase patient compliance and monitor and manage disease progression. For big pharma, they offer a way to improve patient experiences and gain deeper insights that may support outcomes-based pricing, according to experts from Novartis and Takeda Pharmaceuticals International, speaking at Digital Health Showcase January 13, held concurrently with Biotech Showcase™ 2016 in San Francisco.

Takeda

Takeda created five accelerators around the world to identify best practices, implement enterprise-wide digital health initiatives to improve R&D, enhance patient experiences, collaborate with colleagues and recruit. “We’re taking a holistic approach, realizing the pace of innovation is exceedingly fast,” said Daniel Gandor, Head, Takeda Digital Accelerator.

Daniel Gandor, Takeda Digital Media

Daniel Gandor, Takeda Digital Accelerator

“The digital accelerator acts like an internal venture fund for scalable digital experiments. We want marketers to think about the new technology they can use to better engage patients, speed research and get better data from clinical trials. There are opportunities throughout our business,” Gandor said. Takeda encourages its partners to adopt digital health solutions, too. “We want our colleagues to work with us through the challenges, to better enable the application of digital solutions, so this becomes a virtuous cycle.”

When Takeda launched its program one year ago, it first assessed the digital ecosystem within the company. It found silos, a lack of policies and procedures and a lack of certain skill sets. The first step, then, was to “fix the basics, educate colleagues and only then bring in ideas to help innovators shine,” Gandor said.

“No digital products are on the market,” Gandor said. Takeda is working to bring virtual reality mechanism of action digital health products to clinicians and patients to help them better understand particular diseases using Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard. “We’re also dabbling with sensors, including wearables and implantable, to locate digital disease signatures that can make a difference in patients’ health.”

Novartis

Novartis thinks of digital health, today, as a way to gather additional product data that will help patients and shareholders, said Matthew Owens, global head, legal, strategic partnerships and digital medicine. “Initially, we’ll use digital health strategies to increase patient adherence. This is a big opportunity.”

Matthew Owens, Novartis

Matthew Owens, Novartis

The challenge, Owens said, is that “big pharma often is slow and bureaucratic, but it doesn’t have to be. We’re forming a digital medical unit that operates autonomously so it can move faster.” Novartis also is recruiting outside the traditional pharmaceutical candidates to find people who can thrive in a fast-paced digital health environment. “We’re looking at the big picture. Pharma has to change to keep up the pace.”

Currently, Novartis has no digital products on the market, but several are in development. For example, it is working with Alcon to develop smart contact lens and is developing a connected inhaler for COPD patients to track adherence. Data will be collected and stored in the cloud. Digital health solutions for clinical trials also are being developed.

Lessons learned

The most important lesson Takeda and Novartis have learned in their digital health development efforts is to partner. As Owens said, “We’ve dabbled, and learned we’re not good at everything. We see now that the way forward is to work with partners toward a common goal.” Gandor agreed. “Takeda is good at developing drugs. That’s our core competency. Through partnerships we can fill out the customer experience with virtual reality, apps, sensor or device companies. Partnerships are the way to bring our vision to fruition.”

Partnerships involving digital health, however, can be fraught with tension. That’s because healthcare is highly regulated, difficult and often counterintuitive and is often partnering with small, nimble, entrepreneurial consumer IT developers. The cultures may not clash, but they are certainly different. Those differences are evident all the way from contract negotiation through implementation.

To compound the differences, Owens said, “Novartis is not only big pharma, but Swiss. It’s a bit different from working with Silicon Valley. We take billions of dollars and many years to develop a product. Silicon Valley doesn’t understand that, so helping the IT partners understand our industry is very important. It takes a lot of time. The need to ensure that understanding mustn’t be underestimated.”

The benefit, Gandor said, is that by working with IT entrepreneurs, Takeda is becoming more nimble. “This journey is helping with our overall transformation.”

Challenges

For IT partners, many of which are startups with a few employees, one of the biggest challenges is the mountain of paperwork they must review to work with big pharma. “We’re trying to streamline that while maintaining quality,” Gandor said. “The process needs to change.”

For big pharma, Owens said, “The challenge is to not be diverted by the ‘cool’ factor and to focus on things that actually benefit patients. That’s key. Every element in a digital health solution must add value. Only do things because they further your mission.”

 

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