Pharma and tech readying to script a new chapter in healthcare

PT Jyothi Datta | Updated on March 15, 2019

Between e-pharmacies and telemedicine lie big opportunities for small, nimble players

At a recent pharmaceutical conclave, GV Prasad, Co-Chairman and CEO, Dr Reddy’s Laboratories, pointed to changes in healthcare being brought in by personalised medicine and digitalisation.

The Amazons, Googles and Apples of the world and their ongoing research and release of products can check your blood sugar or monitor your heart beat.

Could companies such as these take business away from traditional companies? Would the pharma industry continue to be relevant, years down the line, Prasad asked, vocalising the worry of many an industry honcho.

This concern is not unfounded, indicates industry veteran Rajiv Gulati. Drug companies, be it multinational companies (MNC) or local ones, are “slow, conservative and bureaucratic” in adopting technology, he says, adding that it’s just a matter of time before nimble-footed smaller companies jump in and “kill” the industry’s cumbersome systems.

“Between e-pharmacies and telemedicine, small companies can map the medicines required by doctors and their patients and this can be produced under a private label,” he explains. This model bypasses retailers, their margins and other corrupt practices involving doctors, making the exercise less expensive and more patient-centric, he says. And it could happen in a couple of years. Gulati was formerly Eli Lilly’s India-head and later ex-President with erstwhile Ranbaxy and his observation is rooted in having worked across continents and functions, from drug delivery to marketing, formulations to pharmaceutical ingredients, and on both sides of the MNC-domestic pharma divide.

Outlining examples where companies lag on technology adoption, he says they could improve doctor detailing and education on new products using interconnectivity between phones, portals and a central operator. This would keep doctor interactions electronic, transparent, and free of corrupt practices. In research, companies would benefit from “ïn silico” processes that involve culling research data to streamline molecules with the potential to become a drug.

‘Not either or situation’

Sriram Shrinivasan, National Health Services Sector leader with consultant firm EY, says, “it’s not án either or situation” when it comes to traditional pharma companies and those leveraging technology. Tech companies building products for early diagnosis benefits drugmakers as it means treatment will start early, says Shrinivasan.

As for intermediaries (like aggregators) who add value without quite building anything themselves, and yet take a piece of the revenue pie, they build on existing infrastructure and systems.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0), where technology is intertwined into every walk of life, is an established phenomenon and poised for an exponential growth, he says. In pharma and life sciences, technology can help bridge the gap between the demand for healthcare and the gaps in supply, while remaining rooted in affordability, he adds. Healthcare start-ups, for instance, are helping improve access to remote areas, bring in affordable and mobile products to interior terrains and doctors are open to telemedicine, to give medical advice to people with no healthcare institutions close by.

EY’s recent study, ‘Life Sciences 4.0: transforming healthcare in India’ outlines how tech could make the pharmaceutical industry more efficient. Generic drugmakers could get more competitive and compliant with global regulatory requirements by leveraging robotics process automation, artificial intelligence and blockchain technologies. Biosimilar and speciality drugmakers could bring in efficiencies in their R&D, from drug discovery to conducting clinical trials. The sellers of products for chronic diseases can differentiate themselves through customised solutions to improve disease diagnosis, treatment, and management. And finally, “lifestyle managers,” who focus on prevention, combine tech and behavioural science to come up with personalised solutions.

But digital models have their glitches. The Government’s plan for a digital footprint across healthcare institutions (hospitals, suppliers, drug and device producers and retail chemists) falters in the absence of uninterrupted power supply and erratic internet connectivity across the country. Besides, while there are those comfortable with digital health services, there is a sizeable population that cannot access, or is intimated by tech, as well.

India’s conundrum

That is the conundrum in India, says Shrinivasan, adding that innovation should serve in as many of these populations. Adoption of new technologies is nascent, he agrees, but companies have begun using forecasting and high-end predictive analysis to improve supply-chain efficiencies. But greater connectivity and access to data raise questions on who owns the data, its sharing, the recourse for patients if it is misused. “These conversations are happening in board rooms. Attention is being paid to protocols to protect patient data,” says Shrinivasan, convinced that pharma and tech are scripting the next chapter in healthcare, together.

Published on March 15, 2019

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