A handshake between two men in suits

I caught a couple days of last week’s ePharma Summit, which is really one of the premiere events of the year for pharma digital nerds. I came away with a sense that pharma is emerging from its defensive crouch of the last few years and getting comfortable with the dizzying transformations that have reshaped the healthcare system and the marketing environment over the past decade. The predominant themes that I picked up this year were all about getting closer to patients – and to technology companies.

Stitching together the connected health ecosystem

Gen Xers may remember that on every episode of Pee Wee Herman’s epically weird and wonderful shows, Conky, the resident robot, would issue a Secret Word, and viewers were given permission to shout at the top of their lungs upon its every utterance – much to the gratifying chagrin of their parents. If ePharma 2016 had a Secret Word, it would have been “ecosystem.” It was everywhere and generally used to encapsulate the expanding universe of digital touchpoints through which patients engage with their health – everything from websites to apps to trackers. It also conveyed a level of comfort with the emerging array of connected health devices and their applications for pharma. After awhile, I wanted to scream every time I heard it.

Pfizer’s Judy Seward spoke to the shift from a “Website, check!” mentality to a more patient-centric approach that seeks to engage patients across multiple touchpoints. “The days of ‘If you build it, they will come’ are gone,” she said. “The way we communicate has changed, and I’m very excited about all the different ways we’re engaging with patients in their ecosystems.”

<cue Secret Word screaming>

Pfizer is one of a number of pharmas we heard from that is trying to foster a corporate culture that addresses unmet needs – not just in the lab, but in sales and marketing, as well. And they’re actively looking for ways to incorporate connected health technologies into pill-plus solutions. Seward invoked another ‘80s TV trope (sorry, Millennials!):

“In Knight Rider, everything was connected. Now you can see the beginnings of this ecosystem – continuous monitoring, cognitive computing, technology-plus-medicine, all coming together. This is how we believe that people will engage with our industry in the future. The science and healthcare of the future is being imagined now.”

Not that everything imagined will come to fruition – after all, where, Seward wondered, are those jetpacks we were promised? But it’s a nice reminder, she said, “to think of what might be, regardless of whether you fail.”

 

Tech-pharma partnerships FTW

The need for pharmas to emulate the iterative learning, “fail fast” culture of tech startups was another theme I heard again and again. AOL impresario Steve Case, now head of Revolution, LLC, the venture capital giant that foresaw the rise of the sharing economy, made the case in a panel with DRG’s own Meredith Ressi. Meredith asked Case what advice he’d give to the digital health visionaries working to change the culture of ossified industries and “turn the Titanic around.”

“The lesson from Startup World is rapid experimentation and failure,” said Case. “In the world of science and drug discovery, everyone knows you have lots of failures. You should be a little scared, but looking to the future with optimism, creating that bias towards the future. The companies that do that successfully will be the winners of this next age.”

Case has a new book coming out, the thesis of which is that we’re entering a new age of digital technology that will be less about disruption, less about scrappy entrepreneurs armed with new technology taking on entrenched but complacent incumbents, and more about entrepreneurs partnering with those established players. That’s a trend we’ve been seeing for some time in drug discovery and development, and more recently in pill-plus partnerships, such as Otsuka’s alliance with Proteus for Abilify or Novartis’ partnership with Qualcomm on the Breezhaler, or Boehringer Ingelheim’s collaboration with Propeller Health on their Respimat inhaler.

Of course, it’s not so simple a task for pharmas to emulate tech startups. Regulatory compliance is one barrier – pharmas seeking to establish expedited procedures for medical, legal and regulatory review need to keep their focus narrow and make clear where the “rails” are. The dizzying pace of technological change is another challenge – companies are loathe to place big bets on a platform that may be obsolete in a year or three. And how to measure success or failure? Back to Case:

“In order to get these initiatives supported, there’s often a requirement of clarity which is, by definition, guesswork,” said Case. “There’s a reason VCs no longer require business plans – they realize it was all made up. Now VCs are looking for people who are nimble and flexible, and investing in them, not some detailed plan.”

“Startups have a culture of experimentation,” Case continued, “of taking risks and shots on goal. Companies try to de-risk to the point where it’s all about process and risk mitigation. But it’s not about keeping bad things from happening – it’s about making good things happen.”

Patients to pharma – maybe partner with us, too?

We also heard from the most knowledgeable source of information on the patient experience – patients themselves, as represented by an often-feisty band of patient activists and opinion leaders. They gave pharma an earful about how they see the movement toward patient centricity going (hint: it’s not good).

“In a conversation where partnership is brought up many times and the patient is not a partner, that’s a problem for me,” said Casey Quinlan, a cancer survivor, blogger and former broadcast journalist who spoke on a panel calling for an end to DTC TV spots from pharma.

Fortunately, pharmas seem to be shirking the too-prevalent quarterly thinking and risk-averseness to invest in developing solutions that promise to engage patients and better their health – instead of just advertising at them.

“We’re working to develop digital tools to enable patients to self-monitor in a way that’s meaningful and useful to the physician so that we can contribute to the care of the patient,” said Jane Rhodes of Biogen, which recently ran an innovative pilot program in partnership with PatientsLikeMe, studying the power of self-tracking in MS patients using Fitbits. “We’re very focused on the MS patient,” said Rhodes, “who only sees the physician 30 minutes per year. The rest of the time, they are actively managing their disease, and that’s where we feel this technology can be very helpful.”

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