With the COVID-19 pandemic amplifying the trend toward digital commerce, the pressure to digitalize is also increasing in the life sciences sector. People are staying home more and shopping in most areas can be done online. Strictly speaking, E-Commerce is not central to life sciences. But digitalization is having a big impact on this sector as well because the increased availability of digital offerings is changing the target group’s habits – customers expect to be able to do nearly everything online, even in the health context. And that is not all: increasing data complexity is causing a delay in clinical studies, access to doctors as prescribers is becoming more difficult, checks by those bearing the costs ever stricter. Can a digital strategy help solve these problems? This blog article provides CIOs in the industry with suggestions and tips for how to approach their digital business.
A glance at the market shows that life science companies have not missed out on digitalization. To the contrary – the industry is open to innovation. Mobile apps, machine learning, artificial intelligence – the willingness to implement state-of-the-art digitalization projects is there, as are the technological possibilities. What is missing in many cases is successful scaling – and therefore long-term success. Why is that?
The apparently endless possibilities of modern technologies are enticing. Apps, portals, product websites – developments in these areas promise a direct connection to doctors and patients, easier market access, improved customer loyalty. But in isolation, not embedded in a comprehensive digital strategy, they cannot make a contribution to relevant business KPIs in the long term. The IT market research institute Gartner observes that life science companies’ digitalization measures tend to be trend-driven, not scalable, and therefore effective only in the short term. This has a negative effect on product quality and ROI. And when all is said and done, bogged-down projects will be abandoned in favor of new, innovative measures – and that is not efficient.
A digital business model is only as good as the underlying technology. In this case ‘good’ means, above all else, ‘fit for the future.’ Most life science companies’ IT environments still consist of monolithic IT systems. Closed architecture models and business applications that end in data silos slow down processes and complicate the integration of new features and systems. At the same time, the diversity of data types and thus data complexity is increasing. The most valuable resource of digital business – data – cannot be used optimally and across the organization. This creates a fragmented customer journey on the one hand and the delay of clinical studies on the other. Here, life science companies are wasting a lot of potential – and the opportunity to scale their digital measures.
Traditionally, an appetite for risk is not a basis for business decisions in the life sciences industry: the corporate culture builds on safety and stability – which are part and parcel of this topic area. Again and again, numerous requirements for legal compliance slow down digital progress. That is why CIOs still take great care developing and planning their technological innovations. However, anyone who wants to get digital products to market needs a certain start-up mindset. After all, given the rapid pace at which the technical possibilities and customer needs are developing, it is important to put functionality ahead of perfection, to make quick decisions, and to put usable products on the market promptly. That is the only way for a company to truly address current demand with its offerings.
To exploit the potential of state-of-the-art technologies for their companies efficiently, and for the long term, life science CIOs have to rethink their approach: they need to move away from individual measures that seem attractive and establish a digital basis for their business strategy. Specifically, this means building a digital platform that facilitates a comprehensive shift toward the digital. Why? A wide variety of target groups intersects here, including patients, doctors, hospitals, and manufacturers. It is important to understand that digitalization has to be more than just transferring existing offerings to the online world. The goal should be a platform that provides a transactional marketplace for information and services, and also does much more: it focuses on customers and their needs, provides touchpoints for the entire customer journey – and uses existing data optimally for this.
Of course, such a project cannot be completed in just a few weeks. But that does not matter: development can be done in a series of individual phases, for agile development methodologies enable efficient implementation with continuous prioritization of critical components.
What really counts:
The starting point for successful digital business has to be customers and their needs, not a company’s offerings or its technological possibilities. Seamless customer experience across various channels, a personalized approach, and a user-friendly frontend are just a few elements that customers expect of a digital platform today. To achieve this, data has to be centralized and CRM and mobile applications linked.
Implementing an API-based microservice architecture is initially more time-consuming than existing monolithic systems. However, if a company wants to be fit for the future with its digital platform, it cannot do without an architecture that can integrate new features and functions quickly, because this is how changes in the business model and digital strategy are accommodated flexibly. Agile development methods are especially well suited for the implementation.
The advantage of such an approach: In the first step, the focus is on the target group’s needs, for example, the needs of doctors, patients or hospitals. What are the problems, what is required, and with what digital offerings can these be satisfied? From this, the most relevant services are derived. The project development cycle for implementation is short: A module, e.g., a function for a digital patient portal, goes live quickly in a functional version and is tested by real users in practice. With the help of the resulting experiences, the module can be adjusted and improved continuously in subsequent iterations. This makes high speed and quality possible – even with continuous optimization and extension. Since the services are independent and coupled via APIs, they can also be enhanced independently of one another and scaled individually based on a container infrastructure.
If a life science company rethinks its approach and begins to regard data as a resource and as the basis for digital transformation, the value of a transactional digital platform quickly becomes clear. Customer and contract data is available centrally, which means that it can be enriched easily and used extensively, for example for automated analyses, machine learning, and AI. Furthermore, such a platform can integrate external systems and sources from which additional insights can be gained and new value generated.
Such a digitalization project is complicated and technologically demanding. Gartner recommends that life science companies confront these challenges with experienced technology partners. The result is a series of benefits:
A few such partner projects are already in the implementation phase. For example, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Pfizer und Fitbit are working to enable early diagnosis of atrial fibrillation by analyzing fitness tracker data. Sanofi and Google have joined forces to speed up access to health care via technologies. Novartis is cooperating with Microsoft on projects in the areas of research, clinical development, and production. Astra-Zeneca is also working with Microsoft to accelerate the development of innovative solutions for consumers in health care and medical specialists.
The examples show: Life science CIOs do not have to manage their digitalization projects by themselves or begin from square one. Instead, they should think bigger and for the longer term, move away from small measures and toward their actual business goals. This way, with appropriate implementation partners, the companies’ readiness to innovate can be channeled into an efficient digital business strategy – and ultimately into a digital platform that is capable of confronting the challenges of the future.