Will 2021 Be The Year of Innovation for The Traditionally Slow Pharma Industry?

Covid-19 accelerated changes across the ecosystem and forced many public and private health systems to adapt and innovate in a short span.


As the pandemic spread, India was put under strict lockdown for the first time. Out-patient departments as well as doctors’ clinics suspended their services in order to avoid becoming the virus hotspots. Subsequently, patients with chronic ailments, minor diseases, and those in post-surgery or injury rehab stage were left without any medical support as hospitals catered to critical patients or serious Covid-19 cases.

The coronavirus epidemic not only placed a mammoth strain on the global health care sector’s workforce, but also on infrastructure, and supply chain. On the same side, it also exposed social inequities in health and care. The Covid-19 also accelerated the changes across the pharma industry and forced many public and private health systems to adapt and innovate in a short span.

A number of foundational shifts are happening from and being exacerbated due to the spread of the coronavirus. The consumers are increasing their involvement in health care decision making. Then, there is a rapid adoption of virtual health and other digital innovations. Similarly, there is a push for interoperable data and data analytics use. In the same way, unprecedented public-private collaborations in vaccine and therapeutics development are also taking place in a big way. Amid these changing dynamics, governments, health care providers, payers, and other stakeholders around the globe are being defied to quickly pivot, adapt, and innovate.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been proving a transformational moment for the pharma industry. It has pushed many pharma companies to re-examine themselves at various levels; the way they used to do businesses. Many of those changes are likely to prove difficult to reverse. The race for developing a coronavirus vaccine has stimulated innovation across the industry. However, the sector has been building this thrust for years.

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The Covid-19 pandemic has been proving a transformational moment for the pharmaceutical industry.

The rapidly increasing investments, the robust growth of technology startups, and the expiry of several key patents, as well as surging inter-organisational collaborations and a favorable regulatory environment, are stimulating innovation in the pharma industry.

Amongst the most significant trends that is expected to drive the pharma industry in 2021 is the consumer behaviour. With all the changes that the world witnessed since the start of the pandemic, the consumer behaviour are significantly hastening towards digital consultations through live video calls between doctors and patients. Then the changes like online purchases of medicines just by uploading doctor’s digital prescriptions, collection of blood samples and conducting important tests at home.

At the same time, the combined power of the Internet, data science, connected devices and artificial intelligence (AI) have accelerated the speed of digital transformation in pharma companies to improve the quality and productivity. Skilled manpower in artificial intelligence, machine learning (ML), cloud computing, robotic process automation (RPA), and other technological areas are helping speed up drug repurposing and development of biomarkers.

Remote Monitoring, Virtual Consultations & PHRs

The country’s healthcare ecosystem is on the cusp of a paradigm shift. After remaining impervious to reform for the longest period, the sector has now opened to innovation and digital technology-driven medical assistance that became a necessity and reality amid the pandemic. The more the viral variants curbed people to their homes, the more virtual care became a reality.
In this tough time, technology has been proving its advantages in aiding patients to get the same level of care at home as in an outpatient clinic. This became more evident in the cases of minor health queries and routine check-ups. A variety of technologies enable doctors or health care teams to monitor patients’ health remotely. The Covid-19 will be the inflexion point leading to 30 per adoption to teleconsultation, which has a huge potential to grow in the long run.

The doctors are creating an electronic personal health record system – often called a PHR system – in order to collect the information about the patient’s health that can be controlled and maintained. A PHR app is accessible anytime through a web-enabled device, such as computer, laptop, tablet or smartphone. In case of an emergency, a personal health record can quickly give emergency personnel vital information, such as current diagnoses, medications, drug allergies and the doctor’s contact information.

Around 74 per cent of consumers are ready to get their treatment done through telehealth, according to a global study. The pluses that technology in consultation brings include reduced risk of infections, enabling doctors to attend to more patient consultations, among other things.

This is enabling healthcare facilities to create a space for patients that are requiring critical and emergency care. In places like India, which is densely populated, this has become extremely vital as there is also a short supply of healthcare professionals. It is also possible to undertake procedures such as chemotherapy and dialysis at home. Many home healthcare providers have already started providing these services at home.

This year the remote monitoring is expected to go to the next level through the development of robotic and autonomous healthcare assistants. It is said that they will be able to deliver care right at people’s homes. Recently, the companion robots were introduced into care homes in the UK. The robots have been found to be successful in reducing the likelihood of loneliness and social isolation, this was especially at the time of the pandemic.

Artificial Intelligence in Pharma Industry

Artificial intelligence in the pharma industry refers to the use of automated algorithms to perform tasks that are traditionally dependent on human intelligence. Over the past five years, the use of artificial intelligence in the pharma and biotech industry has transformed how scientists develop new drugs, tackle disease, and many more.

With the growing importance of artificial intelligence in the pharma industry, every business leader is understanding its importance. They are breaking through in the biotech space which are assisted by the deployment of artificial intelligence technologies. In 2019, over 70 per cent of companies believed that artificial intelligence will be vital to their businesses. However, in the same group, only 11 per cent of businesses didn’t consider investing in artificial intelligence technology.

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Around 74 per cent of consumers are ready to get their treatment done through telehealth, according to a global study.

According to Narrative Science, 61 per cent of companies investing in innovative strategies are using artificial intelligence to identify new opportunities that they would have otherwise missed. For pharmaceutical businesses that thrive on innovation, this is an important statistic to understand.

In 2021, flexible artificial intelligence platforms with industry functionality that meets the specific needs of field, brand teams, and medical science liaisons will leapfrog generic solutions. These flexible platforms will apply multi-faceted algorithms and business rules that will compile the unique needs, actions, messages, and strategies of all customer-facing teams. It will provide everyone with the necessary visibility to better organize communications to healthcare professionals.

Self-monitoring through Wearables 

The beginning of connected devices, wearables and Internet of things (IoT) have ushered in a new trend in self-monitoring without having to physically visit a clinic or a doctor. They now have the necessary equipment available at their place for most self-monitoring needs. The readings are transmitted to a central console of the monitoring healthcare provider or doctor for their review and analysis. Diagnostic healthcare is racing ahead towards these connected devices, with artificial intelligence and the Internet providing the first level of diagnostics followed by a prediction and final review by an expert doctor before actual prescription. This experience of connecting virtually has empowering both patients and doctors. It has transmuted a whole new system of healthcare integrators and aggregators, bringing experts and patients on a self-monitoring virtual healthcare platform.

On the same side, governments across the world are also realising how such connected healthcare systems are not only flexible but are also extremely efficient. Artificial intelligence-enabled diagnosis and prediction for review by consulting expert doctors has already gained substantial attractions in hospitals and clinics, where the number of patients is high. Connected healthcare is going to be the new big thing in the year 2021.

Rise of Personnel Health Apps and Telehealth 

A host of apps have been created to help consumers in better organising their medical information in one secure place. These digital tools are helping people in storing their personal health information. Record their vital signs, and calculating and tracking their caloric intakes. Elderly people, who can’t remember their medicine timings, these personal health apps schedule reminders for taking medicine. Simultaneously, it keeps a check and record of your physical activity, such as your daily step count.

Technology has the potential to improve the quality of healthcare and to make it accessible to more people. Telehealth may provide opportunities to make healthcare more efficient, better coordinated and closer to home.
Research about telehealth is still relatively new, but it is growing. Studies have shown that both telephone-based support and telemonitoring of vital signs of people with heart failure reduced the risk of death and hospitalisation for heart failure and improved quality of life.

Global Collaborations in Pharma Industry

The Covid-19 has piloted in collaboration, and not competition, amongst the country’s pharmaceutical regulatory bodies. However, the United States government has shown its objections with the World Health Organisation (WHO). Still, this global collaboration in healthcare – both in research and compliance – is going to get deep-rooted in the time to come. Regulatory bodies like the United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA), and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) are going to strengthen the WHO in its ways of working. Automation software for common standards and compliances are going to be universally implemented since it impacts humanity at large.

The world rapidly taking to the expediency of healthcare solutions through these technologies. However, the pharma industry is presented with the challenge to ensure that their workforce is skillful in addressing this demand. Similarly, it can keep up with the speed of adoption by customers. On the same time, the pharma firms need to upskill and train their personnel in the latest developments. Also, the ways of working with customers at various touch points.

Shifting of Data Science

Previously, the pharma industry remained behind compared to other industries in applying advanced data analytics. But it is catching up now quickly. Pharmaceutical companies have started to decentralise data science efforts by opening the door to specialised teams. These teams can focus on developing dedicated solutions that are in-production over time. For the most part, however, life sciences’ data science teams are still smaller than they should be to successfully apply AI across a wide range of problems in different business functions. It is needed in clinical research, product manufacturing, and pharmacovigilance and market research. This is expected to change in 2021.

Preeti Verma
Preeti Verma
An alumna of IIMC, Preeti writes on global and domestic business, life cycle of a business and its stages. Her fourteen years of stint includes The Economic Times, Business Standard, Financial Express, Tehelka, Businessworld and Times Internet.

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