Eine weibliche Wissenschaftlerin, die in einem Labor in der Pharmaindustrie arbeitet.A female scientist working in a laboratory.

28 June 2021

More AI, more cloud: digitization in the pharma industry

The pressure of digitization has now reached the pharmaceutical industry. The large corporations are facing the innovative spirit and investment appetite of young start-ups, but also the conquering campaigns of large tech corporations such as Google, Amazon, Facebook or Apple. New business models are needed to counteract the particular challenges in the long term, notwithstanding the public attention given to pharmaceuticals by the Corona pandemic. How is digitalization going in the pharmaceutical industry?

Digitization with new partnerships

Regulatory restrictions, high cost pressure, and increasing expectations for the efficient development of new pharmaceutical products cover only part of the current problem areas. Above all, the multi-billion dollar industry is facing the disruptions caused by the digital transformation. More agility is required, greater global networking (in research, for example) and the use of new technologies to focus more on patient needs and help intelligent medical products onto the market.

Trends such as cloud computing, artificial intelligence and big data have long played a major role for the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies as part of their digitization strategies – and they are predominantly working on partnerships with other tech giants to achieve this:

  • German pharmaceutical giant Merck, for example, announced in November 2020 that it would cooperate with Siemens in the future to digitize its production facilities.
  • More recently, Switzerland’s Novartis announced a collaboration with Hewlett Packard Enterprise to use technology solutions to advance global health (such as a data-based monitoring solution to curb dengue fever).
  • In addition, digitization formed a key foundation for the development as well as delivery of the highly effective Corona vaccine at U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which deployed augmented reality across its more than 30 manufacturing sites and labs to centrally manage device diagnosis and repair. For clinical trials, a cloud platform was used for automated data collection. And for the adjustment, monitoring and evaluation of the ongoing vaccine production and delivery, the IT experts rely on so-called COVID-19 supply dashboards, with which every shipment can be tracked in real time via GPS tracking.

Digitization and pharma: high demands, big challenges

But digitization in the pharmaceutical industry is not only taking place in the global context of pandemic control. It also extends to all other levels of healthcare – especially in the precise treatment of people with a wide variety of diseases and their supply with active ingredient preparations.

Here, the industry is faced with fundamental challenges for which it is entirely responsible: since 1970, life expectancy in Germany has increased by ten years, which has also led to an increase in the number of people with age-related chronic diseases. As a result, treatments take longer and are more expensive. At the same time, regulatory requirements for every drug approval are particularly high in Europe. The costs for research, development and production are correspondingly high.

Another important aspect is the increased demand of patients for individualized therapeutic care from physicians. This is due not least to the increased need for information on the part of patients, who, thanks to Google, often enough believe they have a differential diagnostic advantage over the doctor’s findings. Personalization instead of mass medicine is therefore the motto under which the pharmaceutical industry also wants to drive forward the digital transformation in its business areas.

A person in a lab coat is working on a machine.

New technologies for the digital revolution in the pharmaceutical industry

In the context of this permanent structural change, the pharmaceutical industry must constantly renew itself in order not to miss the boat.
But what are the most important cornerstones of Pharma 4.0?

Blockchain Technology

Based on blockchain-based planning and tracking systems, it is now possible to optimally document the planning and safety of pharmaceutical transports. Whenever problems arise in connection with supply chains and transport routes, they can be identified and analyzed immediately – similar to Pfizer’s dashboard system. Counterfeit drugs, which according to OECD estimates account for up to 3.3 percent of global sales, can also be prevented more effectively with crypto technology. Overall, the potential for supply chain management is in the billions.

Digital Health Solutions

Intelligent medical devices are in demand to meet the challenges of the future, especially in preventive diagnostics. With the help of virtual assistants, consumers are supported in adopting a healthy lifestyle, they log dietary and exercise habits, and sometimes even take over early diagnosis when the first symptoms of illness appear. At the same time, the information is used to optimize pharmaceutical production processes so that active ingredients can be better adapted on the basis of huge data sets, manufacturing processes can be optimized and, last but not least, the distribution of medicines can be focused more closely on target groups. The rapidly growing market for smart medical devices, which can be used to record the vital signs of diabetics or predict severe attacks of asthmatics, and which collect an enormous amount of patient data for this purpose, shows the potential of data analytics for the healthcare market. And of digitization in the pharmaceutical industry in general when it comes to data processing.

Artificial intelligence

In this context, Artificial Intelligence will also revolutionize pharmacy in the coming years, beyond disease monitoring. Technologies are already being used for early detection, making them a major factor in cost savings. For example, clinical studies show that two-year-olds’ health data can be used to determine their risk for obesity later in life. Similar successes have been achieved with regard to early detection of dementia. If detected in time, appropriate therapeutic measures could save up to eight billion euros within ten years.

Notwithstanding the enormous progress, pharmacy faces the task of balancing the benefits of data-driven tools as part of the digital transformation with the ethical issues of their “humane” application. AI technologies can mine data, but not explain it to patients. Augmented reality is able to optimize production processes, but is generally not liable in the event of serious mishaps. Because despite the departure into the digital future of pharmacy, ultimately, apart from all the trends, there is still one person above all who is at the center of every treatment and every vaccine: the human being.

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