Digital pharma the Next Normal

Agility to adapt to the changing sector requirements across the globe and deliver to meet the ever-increasing demands of the healthcare sector has made Pharmaceutical Companies respond effectively in the pandemic induced times, writes Garima Pant of Elets News Network (ENN).

Digital transformation in the Indian pharmaceutical sector began almost a decade ago. The sudden onset and deep impact of Covid-19 pandemic only accelerated the pace of adoption that was ably assisted by the agility showcased by the sector, not only in the country but across the globe. Forming the core on which the battle plans to fight the pandemic was created; the pharmaceutical industry has been transformed with this unprecedented occurrence in human history.

The journey ahead will only test the resilience of this key industry and how the pharmaceutical company’s hold on to the lessons learnt during the pandemic to chart their future course. Industry experts have been stating the need to carry forward the momentum to map their ‘New Normal’.

Challenging Limits

Covid-19 has brought with it challenges and opportunities together to make India emerge as the ‘Pharmacy of the world’. It is a widespread belief that digital adoption and transformation witnessed in the last two years could have pushed the sector to achieve a decade of progress. The rapidly evolving and hugely changed landscape made everyone associated with the pharma sector experience a steep learning curve.

With barely any time to give a thought to the teething troubles, the pharma industry galloped towards accelerated adoption of the digital trends to transform operations, develop innovations and recover from the feeling of being lost in the digitization jungle.

New-age technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), Data Analytics (DA), among others have become the driving forces that are pushing the operations in the sector to cater to the burgeoning demands of the populace. According to the Indian Economic Survey 2021, pharmaceutical industry in the country is estimated to reach $65 billion by 2024 and further widen its expanse to become $130 billion industry by 2030. It also called for restructuring the current regulatory mechanism, upgrading and building capacities at various National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research (NIPERs) and highlighted the need for greater R&D expenditure to move up the value chain from generics to Novel Chemical Entities (NCEs).

To bring in the next era of growth in the pharma sector, the need to pursue opportunities in newer product classes like biosimilars, gene therapy and specialty drugs and increase exports to large and underpenetrated markets like Japan, China, Africa, Indonesia, Russia/CIS countries, Brazil and Latin America has also been stressed upon by the Indian Economic survey of 2021.

Numbers decoding the sector

According to an EY FICCI Indian Pharma report, “The Indian pharma industry has grown at a compounded growth rate of (CAGR) of ~11% in the domestic market and ~16% in exports over the last two decades. While the domestic market has grown at a similar pace to the gross domestic product (GDP), the overall growth has been driven by the industry’s leadership in supplying generic formulations to markets across the globe.” Stating the future outlook the report adds, “Though the pharmaceutical industry has grown at a CAGR of approx. 13% over the two decades, in the last decade, the CAGR has been ~ 8.5% and it has currently been ~6.2% over the past five years.

The pharma industry in the country contributes more than 20% by volume of the global generics market and 62% of the global demand for vaccines. Popularly called the “archetype of affordable healthcare,” the industry has significantly contributed towards improving public health outcomes, both in India and across the globe. The report indicates that for realizing this ambition, a concentrated effort from the key stakeholders of the Indian pharmaceutical industry will be required. These include the payers, providers, policymakers, physicians, pharma industry players, academia as well as a plethora of service providers across the logistics and distribution, IT, capital pools, packaging and other auxiliary industries.

Opportunity in Adversity

Digital transformation in the pharmaceutical industry is critical for enhanced patient care, cost-effectiveness, greater transparency, improved production, and drug development. Technology disruptions have given industry players an opportunity to strengthen their offerings by improving interaction with patients and their overall experience, rebuilding the business processes and their future outlook in alliance with the global tech-driven focus. The upcoming pharma companies too can become key contributors in the development of vaccines to counter the ever-changing face of the virus that has been constantly mutating by adopting & prioritizing digital initiatives.

Online mediums have now become an integral aspect of overall sales and marketing plans of pharma companies & they have become the forerunners in phydigital change. Conventional marketing strategies have been put on the back burner to leverage the newer tools for staying ahead in the market. The online medium has not only allowed far-fetched reach but also widened their field of operations as the digital medium is limitless.

The advanced technologies make pharma companies capable of delivering efficiency, fast pace and quality product offerings. Tech advancements like cloud computing and cybersecurity assisted the industry take up remote working and perform decentralised clinical trials, according to Global Data. Organizations will be essentially required to adopt digital technologies as per their business needs and build up a stout digital transformation strategy before investing in new technologies, adds Global Data. It further forecasts that the market for AI platforms for the entire healthcare industry will reach $4.3bn by 2024, up from $1.5bn in 2019.

Sheela Nambiar, Senior Director, Oracle Digital shares how the onset of the pandemic compelled organizations across industry sectors to cope with challenges of an unprecedented nature and scale. “In spite of this, a number of organizations in the health-tech space brought their agility into play to unearth ideas and opportunities for innovation by leveraging cloud technologies. It’s heartening to see a number of health-tech firms focused on developing solutions to improve the patient treatment/care experience while continuing to innovate to make quality healthcare both easily accessible and affordable even in the remotest parts of India. For example, telehealth has seen increased adoption in the last 12- 15 months, with contactless care delivery emerging as the accepted norm for non-critical care,” she added.

She also cited the example of Medexpert Software Solutions, an innovative health-tech firm helping ‘uberize’ healthcare delivery. “It’s helping healthcare delivery organizations – be it super-specialty hospitals or neighbourhood clinics – to improve business agility and deliver a better healthcare experience to patients. The company runs its Agile Health Hospital Management System (HMS) suite on Oracle’s secure, next-generation cloud infrastructure (OCI). Medexpert is now focused on providing TeleICU and Digital ICU services to help remote rural hospitals get access to specialists, facilitating immediate and effective care at the point of care delivery,” added Nambiar. Tech-led healthcare is becoming core to how the industry will operate in the new normal.

Pharma Digital Moment has arrived

A research conducted by Novartis in the previous year established that 86 per cent of technology professionals think that the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries’ digital moment has arrived. An online survey conducted by the company quizzed 2,500 tech professionals across the US, UK, Germany, China and India between 23 May and 2 June. Around 85 per cent of the respondents said the application of data science had been a crucial factor in the sector’s response to COVID-19 while 89 per cent averred that the discipline would be the key in the development and delivery of healthcare solutions and services in the coming times.

A research study by Mckinsey has indicated that the supply chains are turning increasingly patient-centric due to the augmented adoption of digital tools, telehealth, and app-based ecosystems. It adds that novel technologies are likely to also surface including ‘mRNAbased vaccines that may alter the market dynamics for capacity’. The study states that ‘at the individual company level, companies are now more focused on operational resilience and accelerating initiatives that enable more agility— including workforce agility as work forces become more remote and distributed—and transparency through greater deployment of digital and analytics tools and automation. As the recovery begins to shape, there are considerations for governments and regulators as well. This is likely to evolve as the industry itself evolves in its recovery from the crisis. Each of these shifts—at the industry, company, and government level— will have fundamental implications for pharma operations and its path to recovery’.

The Road Ahead

As the future of work is seemingly moving towards becoming more remote and distributed, revaluating the work prospects will be a key focus for the pharmaceutical sector as well. With digital tools driving operations, there will be a greater need for a workforce that can program, operate and interpret data from these new-age technologies. This would require significant reskilling and capacity building of the workforce accompanied by strategic planning.

Looking ahead, a formidable pairing of data science and technology will not only provide the much-needed resilience, will also help to reshape the sector and enable better experiences for patients and physicians. With a seismic shift in the sector post the pandemic, pharma and healthcare has become one of the most sought after sectors as a career destination with a host of opportunities awaiting skilled talent. Experts believe that the momentum gained during this period should be leveraged and strategies should be devised to create agile organisational support systems for employees and other stakeholders.

And that’s what the need of the hour is! Accelerating the development of treatments from start to finish will define the ecosystem pharmaceutical technology has to cater to, going beyond just tools and tech in the labs. Digitization across the enterprise will lead the way towards successful adaptation of the pharma sector.

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