The pharmaceutical industry is amid an evolution as new technologies disrupt the industry. The new era of digital health and smart pharma are paving the way for advances in key healthcare areas such as medical adherence, pharmacovigilance, how data is captured, how treatment is delivered, how patients can interact with healthcare professionals, and an improvement in overall patient engagement.

Pharma companies are having to adapt and innovate to keep pace and utilize the value-added changes of digital technology. Advances in cloud technology, mobile communications, big data, and AI are disrupting the health sector, resulting in organizations experimenting with a wide range of digital initiatives. But what will be the impact of the latest trends and developments, and how will this impact healthcare professionals and patients?

Transforming the approach to drug development 

Recruitment of subjects along with management and monitoring within trials is challenging and several organizations have tried to conduct “virtual trials” with limited success. Social media has been used as a new conduit to recruit. While patients show interest, this does not necessarily translate to participation. Clearly protocol endpoints and regulatory expectations must be addressed in any pre-authorization trials. The principle investigators and their healthcare professional teams must be provided the digital tools to enable them to capture the key data at required time points or indeed unexpected time points. It is in this area that pharmacovigilance, the science relating to the collection, detection, assessment, monitoring and prevention of adverse effects with pharmaceutical products, is making a difference. Using cloud-based platforms tools gives pharma companies far more accurate data on which to base their assessment and analysis to help produce more refined, effective drugs.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, it is estimated that by applying big data strategies to better inform decision-making, the United States could generate up to $100B in value annually across the US healthcare sector, in part by “building new tools for physicians, consumers, insurers and regulators to meet the promise of more personalized approaches”.

Improving medication adherence

Drug delivery technology has improved significantly in recent years. We are seeing the emergence of smart pharmaceuticals that promise to increase adherence, thus improving the efficacy of medical treatment plans. Factors contributing to poor medication adherence are myriad and include those that are related to patients (For example, the lack of health literacy and involvement in choosing a treatment plan), issues relating to the healthcare professional (For example, complicated treatment plans, issues relating to communication, failure to inform patients about potential adverse effects of the drugs in question) and those relating to the national healthcare system (For example, limited access to care and the lack of health information technology).

As non-adherence is a complex issue, approaches to improve it should be multifaceted and personalized. The CDC has determined that a tailored approach with built-in flexibility and engagement options for patients provides the best experience and thus, increases their medication adherence. An amalgam of digital technology to help remote monitoring and a healthcare team to manage and support the patient when needed is an approach pharmaceutical companies are starting to implement.

Tailoring treatment plans to be more effective

Smart pharmaceuticals are also having an impact when it comes to developing tailored treatment plans for patients. Tailor-made treatment plans do require sufficient data to ensure patients are receiving the best possible drugs to treat their illness, ensure greater levels of adherence and improve patient engagement. The McKinsey Global Institute expects that, within five to seven years, a significant proportion of the pharmaceutical portfolio will create value through more than just drugs. This will come partly as a result of many drugs becoming part of a digital ecosystem that constantly monitors a patient’s condition and provides feedback to relevant stakeholders. An effect of this will be that health professionals can begin to target improvements in health outcomes by tailoring therapy to a patient’s individual clinical profile. It also ties into patient empowerment and their ability to be part of their own digital ecosystem, thus closely monitoring adherence with the goal of improving the efficacy of medicines.

Shaping a new world of healthcare

Digital health is facilitating an enhanced exchange of information between healthcare providers and patients. Virtual doctors are just one element of the multiple channels that will be used to improve the sector. It is expected that virtual doctors will save national health providers more than $20M per year and reduce the time spent on treating minor illnesses, currently costing around $2B per year. Other aspects of this omni-channel approach include patient portals, which enable users to access their medical records and communicate with their physicians.

This era of patient empowerment is creating more discerning customers. With the vast array of information available, patients are becoming more inclined to weigh up the merits and downsides of healthcare products, leading to a health competition between pharma companies. We are seeing a move by health technology companies to pave the way for useful innovations. These companies develop array of technologies that can provide insights into the patient’s condition. Such companies, given appropriate permissions and consent, are able to collect petabytes of data from patient records, data secured via smart devices and insurance claims to capture valuable data that can help improve the healthcare sector as a whole.

Positive change is occurring across the healthcare sector. New technologies and the growing capabilities of big data are widening access and improving efficacy and immensely benefiting patients. Furthermore, digital health, smart pharma, and pharmacovigilance are converging and innovative companies are discovering how to implement aspects of all three to provide best-in-class products and services. While this new era might still be in its nascent stages, the scope for it to disrupt and improve the healthcare sector is vast.