Digital Health Innovation In Pharma

Steve Jobs once said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” I believe this thought has propelled Apple to the heights it enjoys today. Similarly, I believe it is time for innovation to revolutionise the healthcare industry, especially in the pharmaceutical sector. For example, in 2013, the USFDA approved only 32 new medicines, and this number remained stagnant over the years. However, COVID-19 showed that the pharmaceutical industry can accelerate innovation, with vaccines reaching the market in as little as six months.

Healthcare is not unique in its slow adoption and diffusion of innovations. It took 64 years for the telephone, 45 years for electricity, 23 years for computers, 16 years for mobile phones, 12 years for radio, and 13 years for the internet to achieve 40 per cent consumer adoption. A staggering 86 per cent of pharmaceutical executives acknowledge the importance of innovation in their business, but only 63 per cent have a well-defined innovation strategy.

To foster innovation, several key considerations need to be addressed:

Allocating a portion of revenue for innovation (globally, this allocation has increased from 8.6 per cent to 11.6 per cent and is projected to reach 15-20 per cent).

  • Focusing on recruiting and retaining the right talent (59 per cent of Pharma executives face challenges in finding and retaining the best talent for driving innovation).
  • Cultivating strategic partnerships.
  • Placing patients and payers at the center of the innovation process.
  • Providing education about app development and medical device regulation.

Some ways we see the influence of digital innovation in the pharmaceutical sector include:

Demand Side View:

  • Hospitals have integrated physical and digital (Phygital) technologies, using more robots for remote care delivery and telemedicine.
  • Companies are digitising clinics across India (e.g., Docon, Healthplix).
  • Healthtech companies are creating integrated care ecosystems (e.g., Practo expanding into the secondary care market and launching 50 Practo Care Surgery Experience Centers in six Indian cities).

Supply Side View:

  •  Tech companies are aggressively hiring as e-pharmacy firms experienced a surge in orders during COVID (Pharmeasy, 1mg, True Meds have opened physical stores and expanded teams for timely online order deliveries).
  • Major e-commerce giants are investing in online/e-pharmacies due to increased online order demand (e.g., Flipkart group acquired a majority stake in Kolkata-based Sasta Sundar marketplace, which operates an online pharmacy and digital healthcare platform).
  • Startups are launching tech powered contactless remote patient monitoring systems (e.g., Dozee launched a contactless remote patient monitoring and AI-powered triaging system for patients outside the ICU).


  • In January 2021, the National Health Digital Mission (NDHM) was launched to seamlessly connect the healthtech ecosystem into one platform.
  • In February 2021, the Pradhan Mantri Aatmanirbhar Swasth Bharat Yojana scheme was announced, aiming to develop the capacities of the primary, secondary, and tertiary health sectors.
  • A recent industry survey showed that 97 per cent of pharmaceutical participants plan to use digital health technologies in clinical trials.
  • Regulatory bodies like the FDA classify apps as devices if they are used in the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of a disease or if they affect the body’s structure or function. In the EU, the new Medical Devices Regulation (EU MDR) classifies all medical software apps as medical devices.

There is a significant role that virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies will play in medical education, training, and patient care in the future of the pharmaceutical landscape. Some examples include:

  • Augmented Reality is already transforming healthcare in areas such as pain management, therapy, surgical methods, medical training, and patient education.
  • AR is used for real-time simulation surgeries, enhancing the visibility of veins, organs, and diagnosis reports, and providing safer training for surgeons.
  • Virtual Reality is adopted by physicians to treat patients with phobias and plan surgeries with 3D models, improving accuracy and reducing risks associated with complex procedures.

Quantum Computing is another cutting-edge technology with potential applications in the pharmaceutical industry. Quantum computers use the principles of quantum physics to store data and perform computations, offering possibilities like identifying the causes of product failures in manufacturing processes and advancing cancer prediction. Additionally, quantum computing could contribute to reducing emissions and improving technologies for addressing climate change.

The role of AR and VR in the healthcare ecosystem is expected to grow, thanks to increasing device connectivity and government policies supporting healthcare digitisation.

The use of digital technology to enhance patient-centric care, from diagnosis to management and adherence, will be the way forward. With nearly 90 per cent of the US and UK populations regularly using the internet and high smartphone penetration rates, the pharmaceutical industry and other stakeholders will have a profound impact on how they engage with patients.

Views expressed by Shaik Barak Tulla, Sr. Vice President & Commercial Head, Acute

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