How digitally mature are Europe’s pharmaceutical companies?

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Only six per cent of life sciences companies in Europe are willing to state that they are digital-first. In an era when digital is all-encompassing, can companies afford to say that they are not yet truly digital? The answer is no, they cannot. This is perhaps why despite being one of the few industries to be cautious about digital adoption until now, some of the top pharmaceutical companies are racing to invest in it.

Take the case of Swiss´Novartis and Germany’s Merck and Bayer, to name a few; in the recent past, they have made bold decisions to hire digital specialists, digital officers and digital heads.

These hires have been made in the wake of new pricing challenges. Today, healthcare payers are placing cost limitations on providers and closely analysing the usefulness and efficiency of drugs. Add to this the fact that the market structure is fragmented, competitive and cost conscious, and businesses are looking at a pressing need to reduce cost, even in serving customers.

While it’s true that even ten years ago, digital was pervasive and powerful, it’s only recently that it has entered the focus of the life sciences industry. That’s because digital is now gaining maturity at a really fast pace, opening up many highly valuable avenues for application. It’s also largely due to the new business ecosystem and customer demands that are emerging.

Enabling more effective routes of communication with doctors and payers

Digitisation is transforming the way pharmaceutical companies are communicating with payers and doctors. It has already created a new channel of interaction between the two key stakeholders in the industry, allowing for greater transparency and visibility, as well as enabling better return on investments. Interestingly, doctors are increasingly showing an interest in seeking and receiving information via digital sources.

Research has shown that the average physician receives 2,700 contacts from the pharma industry a year – or around 7.5 a day. At the same time, much of this is irrelevant or unnecessary, with 68 per cent of oncologists and that pharma reps provide information that they’re already aware of; for dermatologists, the figure was 62 per cent. Little wonder, then, that a study by IMS Health in 2017 revealed that contact between physicians and pharma industry representatives dropped from 900 minutes a year in 2011 to just 400 minutes in 2015.

Digital can be the solution to this disconnect between clinicians and pharma companies, but its benefits are unevenly spread throughout the world. The same IMS Health report revealed that Europe lags far behind the US and Japan when it comes to digital contact time.

To increase the amount of digital interaction, it is vital to promote the benefits that it brings over traditional methods of communication. It is also becoming critical for pharmaceutical companies to realise that they are functioning in an ecosystem in which their core strength – their sales force – is growing relatively slowly. A pharmaceutical company that found itself in a similar position mitigated the challenge by running an online campaign for a product that could no longer be supported by their sales force. With minimal investment, they saw growth two and a half times faster than the market. Digital strategies like social listening, will not just help companies comprehend the needs of the population better, but also help to predict health challenges and keep stakeholders informed about the same to make better decisions.

Nurturing the demands of the technologically savvy patient

However, the push to go digital is not just coming from the business front. It is also coming from the consumers themselves – the connected patient. With this, consumer behaviour is changing drastically. There is an increasing adoption of digital channels to access information on healthcare. Consumers in Europe are increasingly demanding experiences that are only digital, as opposed to ones that are fully traditional. Consider this: 80 per cent of internet users are already looking for information on healthcare online. So, companies are no longer seeing a rising demand for digital communication, from just doctors, but also from patients.

And with these patients now increasingly looking to be integrated in the decisions made about their healthcare, pharmaceutical companies will have to work harder to ensure that they are aware of the value of the drugs and services they use. This can go a long way in helping retain customers. While pharmaceutical and life science companies have largely been reluctant to adopt digital, it’s reassuring to know that the proportion of pharma companies using digital channels to market to healthcare professionals rose from 81 per cent in 2016 to 87 per cent in 2017, including growth across all the main digital channels, such as websites, digital ads and mobile apps.

The road ahead for pharmaceutical companies

In light of the drivers that we have just discussed, it is clear that pharmaceutical companies in Europe have to keep their eyes open to a few trends that are all set to either emerge or get stronger in the coming year. One such trend that we should be watchful for, is the customer’s multi-channel journey, which is set to become more diverse. With digital, pharmaceutical marketers can ensure that this journey is optimised for the customer.

Very soon, the focus for pharmaceutical companies will move from just the pill to personalised pills with a combination of apps for coaching and diagnostics (also called combination products). In time, this system will become more established in a way that it can help healthcare providers move their focus from treatment to prevention.

Even the small shifts to digital, which the industry is seeing is resulting in big changes. Take for instance the fact that the average European has a life expectancy that is 30 years more than that of their predecessor. The advances that have taken place in drug profiling and development that enable targeted treatments, has made this possible with help from digital. These advancements will not only help people live longer, but lead better quality lives.

And most importantly, with digital, pharmaceutical companies will get to do more than just develop safe and effective drugs. They will be able to engage more effectively with patients and eventually realise the goal of becoming patient-centric. The more pharmaceutical companies become digital, the better will be the relevance of patient data, gathered to improve outcomes in nearly every crucial area – from drug discovery to regulatory approvals, from drug development to the supply chain.

Fares Zaier, Head of Sales Europe, Life Sciences, Infosys
Image Credit: Konica Minolta Business Solutions UK