As we have seen, more and more industries are digitalising their businesses. However, pharmaceutical companies have been rather slow adapting to the digital era, but are now speeding up their efforts to digitalise their businesses and services. Make Helsinki interviewed Sammeli Liikkanen, the Chief Digital Officer at Orion Pharma and asked what digitalisation can offer to pharmaceutical companies in general, and how digitalisation transforms the whole business.
Why should pharmaceutical companies go digital?
The pharmaceutical industry is rather conservative by its nature and as a result companies have been slow to begin digitalisation. However, digitalisation is everywhere, including in our value chain, and our customers are expecting more and more digital products and services. There isn’t any other alternative than to go with the flow. We have to accept that the whole business environment is changing. As digitalisation is everywhere around us, and we want to answer to the needs of our customers, we have to digitalise ourselves too.
Pharma companies are used to offer their customers concrete products, for instance capsules and pills. However, when buying items from companies in other industries, customers are already getting digital services related to the item that they purchase. So the baseline expectation from customers is that when they buy a pharmaceutical product, they get digital information and services related to that. If we only continue delivering physical products without anything on top of that, we aren’t meeting their expectations. Also, if we aren’t providing services via mobile phones and other devices to customers that are used to them, we are again not meeting their expectation.
Digitalisation also offers possibility to develop completely new solutions and services for example to healthcare specialists and patients. What customers really care about is that their problem gets solved and that their needs are fulfilled. Digitalisation allows us to find new ways in helping them in this.
How has digitalisation transformed the pharmaceutical industry?
Digitalisation has already started to transform and continues to transform the pharmaceutical business. It changes the way we approach our customers. For example instead of offering a product brochure (leaflet) in paper format we are able to give the same and additional information in digital format.
Adapting to digitalisation is already mandatory at some level in the pharmaceutical industry. A good example of forced digitalisation is the new European Union directive that will become apparent within a few years: All packages of prescribed products within the European Union area have to contain a serialisation code, which means that each package has an unique randomised ID. Companies need to adapt and digitalise their production processes.
Yet, digitalisation hasn’t changed pharmaceutical industry to be any less concerned about safety and quality. Companies are still choosing the safest possible method. I think that digitalisation has enabled us to better understand the patient. The patient is just not a faceless person somewhere out there. All digital solutions start with understanding of the patient and the customer. I think that new digital solutions have brought the customer closer to our company.
In my opinion, digitalisation should be a natural part of any business strategy and any solution.
How difficult is it for pharmaceutical companies to adapt to the digital era?
Digitalisation has a lot to do with behaviour, and changing behaviour is the most difficult element of any change. Pharma companies are unable to make changes without help of other stakeholders. For example we are dealing with lots of authorities, which means that they also have to be willing to change, especially as the pharmaceutical industry is very regulated. I would say that the pharmaceutical industry is one of the most challenging industries when it comes to change.
How can customers benefit from the digitalisation of the pharmaceutical industry?
Today patients are offered more and more digital solutions, mobile applications, and digital information, like electronic package leaflets. The extent of how much digitalisation changes the way of doing things also depends very much on the treatment, medicine and the disease.
In the future, when it comes to applicable disease treatments, customers might be given some special wearable to monitor the disease themselves. Monitoring the disease will be straightly linked with the treatment, and for example how we take the medicine. This means that in the future the dosage can be adjusted automatically according to live measurements. Thus people will be able to control the treatment themselves, without necessarily always having to contact the healthcare professional. That’s what the majority of the customers and perhaps also the society wants. When we allow people to treat themselves in a safe and robust way, instead of always calling the nurse or the physician, we are also able to decrease the healthcare cost. Of course there will always be customers who prefer to be treated by the health care professionals only, and in the end no technological innovation can fully replace a human professional. We have to be willing to serve those customers as well.
How has Make Helsinki helped Orion Pharma with digitalisation?
During the last five years we have been working together with Make Helsinki on various projects, from developing mobile and web applications for different customer segments to cost-effective solutions for new technologies. Make Helsinki has also consulted us on different areas of digital product development and given recommendation on which technology is optimal for us to use.
A good example of the cooperation is the My Well-being application that helps patients remember to take their medicines, keep a medicine diary and get more information about medicines and their usage. Reminders can be very helpful for people who suffer from memory problems for instance. When a patient needs to take various medicines, reminder timetables can be created for each medicine separately. The app is free for downloading for iPhone, Android and Windows Phone. Additional features are coming to My Well-being as we speak, and we are excited to be able to offer our customers even better digital services in the near future.
Overall, the collaboration with Make Helsinki has been fun, flexible and productive. When they are not helping us with our development projects or elements of digital strategy, sharing an evening with pool, sauna and ‘Exploding Kittens’ card game is always an alternative. The team members at Make Helsinki are relaxed, tech savvy and goal oriented – but still a bunch of funny geeks.
How do you see the future of the pharmaceutical industry and digitalisation?
I think that artificial intelligence is the next big thing. We are already collecting a lot of electronic and paper data, and now we have to put that data into use and further develop the data into information. We can use artificial intelligence in order to learn what the data actually is all about and see if there are any phenomenons, patterns or other valuable findings in it. Alongside with the artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things will be big thing as well.
Digitalisation is definitely a joint operation with the authorities, health care professionals, the value chain, patients, and the companies. It is not just about the pharmaceutical companies themselves. We are in the first line of creating new solutions, but we can’t do that alone, we have to get everyone onboard. We have to make solutions that are beneficial for all the stakeholders within the ecosystem.