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News & Press: Digital Health Observatory

Why pharma industry loves and fears digital health?

07 December 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Heather Smith
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Why pharma industry loves and fears digital health?

By Joan Cornet Prat, Non-Executive Director at ECHAlliance


A complex industry…

The pharmaceutical industry is characterized by intensive Research & Development (R&D) activities. The control of intangible assets linked to the innovation process, especially patents, is of extreme importance in this segment, since many resources are employed in the innovation process, resulting in a high product development cost - from the discovery of the drug to the stage of launching the product into the market. Today, the cost of developing a successful medicine can exceed, according to some studies, USD 2.6 billion (1) compared to USD 179 million in 1970s (2). The high R&D costs are a reflection of the long period required for the development of a new compound, which may reach up to 13 years before the pharmaceutical formulation goes to market, associated with a very low success rate, with only one molecule of the 10,000 employed in the initial research stages reaching the commercial stage (3,4)

IFPMA-Facts and Figures 2017


Global contribution of granted patents, in percentages, of some countries. Considering the period from 1996-2013. Source: WIPO (2015). 

 In the past 10 years alone, 293 medicines have been approved that offer new hope to patients with hard-to-treat diseases (5). The introduction of innovative drugs usually has a two-fold benefit for society. First, it improves the physical and mental well-being of individuals. Second, it reduces hospitalization and other healthcare costs. Thus, for every dollar spent on prescription drugs in the United States, more than two dollars are saved in hospitalization costs (6).


IFPMA-Facts and Figures 2017



Data mining

These long and costly processes of Research & Development mostly involve monitoring of the molecules and their impact on the patient, especially in the clinical trials phase III. Once the regulator agrees to launch the drug in the market, a new phase begins in which the protagonists are the doctor, the pharmacist and the patient. Although doctors can and should report side effects of a product on a patient, it only occurs in severe cases and sporadically. So, in the end the industry, after years of obtaining data on the effects of a drug, has no information on how their product impacts the patient's health. The only data they can obtain are practically about logistics, sales of their products, consumption by geographical areas and over time, when the intellectual protection finishes, data about the competition with other laboratories.


A big problem for Pharma Industry and a huge danger for patients

A recent review report published in the Annals of Internal Medicine states that 50% of medications for chronic diseases are not taken as prescribed, whatever the severity of the diagnosed disease.

Earlier this year, The New York Times, in an article titled "The cost of not taking your medication," reported that lack of adherence to medications can cost the US health system between $ 100 billion and $ 289 billion a year.

Digital transformation is reaching the pharmaceutical industry, with different speeds. It is a highly regulated industry with important differences in the regulatory framework by country. Mobile communications, the cloud, advanced analytics, and the Internet of Things are among the innovations that are starting to transform the healthcare industry in the ways they have already transformed the media, retail, and banking industries.


Pharma industry is facing new scenarios: 

  1. Patients want to be more engaged and empowered, looking for information, and most of them ready to share experiences with other patients
  2. The traditional and official information provided by pharma in each of the products, is impractical and difficult to understand for laymen citizens. In fact, it’s useless. It is only a legal disclaimer in the case of a fatal cases or unexpected side effects
  3.  Private and Public health care services are moving to outcomes-based payment, not for units sold. 
  4.  Clinicians and patients are keen to know information on product performance. If it’s not officially available, they can look for other sources of information. 



Digital opportunities

Personalized care: Sensors and digital services for tailored, 24/7 treatment.

Once the physician has made a diagnostic and a prescription, the patient has to follow a therapeutic plan.  Nowadays there is an arsenal of sensors and wearables to monitor the patient at home. How much pharma can be involved in this phase? Not only about the pills or similar, but lifestyle, changing behaviour, etc.


Fuller engagement: Omnichannel conversations with physicians and patients

In most of the chronic patients, usually with a lot of medicines to take, and a lot of lifestyle guidelines, there is a need to have more communication channels where the pharmacist can interact with physicians and patients. Virtual communication could be an important asset, improving the patient follow-up. Sometimes patients have a reduced mobility, virtual consults can avoid delays in going to the doctor, and avoiding loss of time for the family patient. A lot of consultations are about the low impact of medicines and side effects.

Digital-engagement technologies open up a whole new world for marketing, the exchange of information, and recruitment for trials. Pharmaceutical sales reps, medical-science liaisons, and patient-service teams can inform and influence patients, physicians, and caregivers in person or via mobile phones, the Internet, apps, or social media. Patients are already starting to use patient portals for their medical records and to communicate with their physicians, and they use apps to fill scripts and online patient communities to speak to other patients with the same disease.


Data-driven insight: Advanced analytics to increase pipeline and commercial value.

Pharma companies sit on a wealth of data, usually locked away in different technical and organizational silos. Some are already linking and mining their data sets to improve their pipelines, products, and strategies. But there remains a huge opportunity to create further value from data and analytics using internal and external data sources to drive superior results


Real-time responsiveness: Automated processes to improve cost, reactions, and agility.

Clinical-trial management, from recruitment to submission, is another area that will see dramatic change with advanced automation. Targeted online recruitment and remote-monitoring technology (sensors, connected devices, and apps) will increasingly enable clinical trials to take place in "real world" settings so that patients can go about their lives with very minor changes in habits, while participating in a trial. Greatly reducing interventions in clinics or trial sites during the trial of a drug will reduce the burden on patients and make trial conditions more akin to a patient's life when he or she is prescribed the drug outside a trial setting. Increased connectivity and automation in trial-management processes will also enable advanced trial design and monitoring approaches. For example, sites and sponsors can be connected in order to support the data management and analytics required for adaptive trial designs. (7)


Where is the patient?

The pharma industry has a hard time understanding the patient, their situation, and experience with a disease or drug is not new. Investing in digital health to learn more about the people who are taking a company’s therapy is a smart solution to this problem. This is where pharma companies should invest in digital health communities, in which patients can safely share their experiences in a controlled environment, and where moderators can keep an eye on the conversation and hear what people are saying.




 Looking ahead:

Industry tries to keep pace with digital health: The rapid development and take-up of digital technology is forever changing the way pharma engages with patients—but the industry’s ultimate potential in tapping digital health to transform patient care hinges on embracing new shifts in culture and business strategy.


 Pharma companies tend to tread lightly around the idea of digital health, not just because there is a lot of uncertainty around the concept, but also because there is even more ambiguity when it comes to digital health regulations. They are worried that they might overstep into uncharted territory. Experts, however, believe this is a very good time for pharma organizations to think hard about digital health in their business planning.

The pharma industry has the opportunity, motivation, and technology to create great impact in healthcare by incorporating digital health technology into the patient journey. To do so, companies need to cultivate a culture of exploration and innovation. Key focus areas will include creating engaging experiences to help patients understand and manage their diseases, the delivery of personalized and actionable information, and the real-time health data tracking and monitoring for healthcare providers to care for patients outside of regular doctor visits



  1. DiMasi, J. A.; Grabowskib, H. G.; Hansenc, R. W. (2016) Innovation in the Pharmaceutical Industry: New Estimates of R&D Costs. Journal of Health Economics. doi: 10.1016/j.jhealeco.2016.01.012 
  2. PhRMA (2016) 2016 Biopharmaceutical Research Industry Profile. Washington DC: Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, p 47.
  3. Kaitin, K. I. (2010). Deconstructing the drug development process: the new face of innovation. Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics, 87(3), 356-361. PMid:20130565. [ Links ]
  4. Bunnage, M. E. (2011). Getting pharmaceutical R&D back on target. Nature Chemical Biology, 7(6), 335-339. PMid:21587251. [ Links ]
  5.  US Food and Drug Administration (2016) Novel Drugs 2015.
  6. PhRMA Innovation Hub (2016) Innovation by the Numbers. 
  7. Adapted from








Joan Cornet Prat, 

Non-Executive Director