• Technology is bringing us closer to personalized healthcare and optimized population health.
  • But how we apply emerging technologies and digital innovation in healthcare needs to be strategic.
  • Every aspect of healthcare, from R&D to manufacturing and pharma executives, must embrace a “Man + Machine” reality and collaborate to innovate.

In November 2019, an Italian surgeon used a virtual reality headset to travel more than 100 kilometres from his location in Rome to an operating room in Terni. His mission? To oversee a laparoscopic procedure being performed in real-time. Thanks to 5G’s low latency, the physician was able to view and zoom in on live images of the patient’s organs, providing live commentary to the physicians in the operating room. It was a monumental moment for modern medicine, demonstrating the potential of cutting-edge technologies to transform the way we reach and treat patients around the globe.

Innovations like this are becoming more and more common and it’s clear that technology is going to transform the way that we care for patients around the world – from prevention and diagnosis to treatment and beyond. As an industry, we’re edging closer to personalized medicine and optimized population health, two highly ambitious but important goals. But as we move toward this horizon, we must take care to apply digital innovation strategically across every aspect of our business.

Digital has the potential to fundamentally change the game in R&D and manufacturing, for example:

Relentless R&D engines: I recently visited a lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where a robot was operating 24 hours a day, synthesizing 200 proteins at once. It wasn’t long ago that a human being would have been tasked with synthesizing all of those proteins, and it would have taken much longer, with more opportunities for error. Scenes like this – where technology is embraced and taking over time-consuming, repetitive tasks, freeing human beings to take on more complex, higher-value work – are becoming increasingly common in the research and development phase of drug discovery. Scientists around the globe are deploying digitalization to their advantage, and as a result, we are able to understand diseases and reach breakthrough moments faster, which ultimately benefits patients.

Smart manufacturing: Of course, developing treatments faster and more efficiently is just the first step in bringing the right medicines to the patients who need them. Right now, we are at the very beginning of a movement that will improve current manufacturing systems, which often struggle to keep pace with volume and complexity demands. By using leading-edge technology and taking advantage of data to increase efficiencies and improve the agility needed to respond to rapidly changing patient needs, “smart” factories help to connect the production and distribution processes with R&D. Similarly, the factories are able to quickly change from one manufacturing process to another, greatly limiting the latency time between products and paving the way for the more efficient commercialization of life-saving treatments. These facilities can be up to 160% more productive, increasing factory output by 200% and cutting costs by up to 40%. As equally impressive and important, smart factories are 50% more energy efficient by cutting emissions, reducing pollution and mitigating damage to the environment.

To achieve excellence in both of the areas, the pharma industry must build the foundations necessary for digital to succeed. This includes pursuing company-wide digitalization versus disjointed implementation of the flashiest technologies on the market. To build this foundation, we must ensure that four things happen: firstly, we need to retrain our employees across every division – not just in manufacturing or in the lab – with the skills they need to work alongside new technologies. In tandem with these efforts, we must also support employees from the factory floor to the C-suite to “de-learn” old ways of working and embrace a “Man + Machine” reality.

Thirdly, both of these efforts will require a robust employee engagement movement focused on keeping employees informed of changes and dispelling fears about the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Finally, we need to embrace an industry-wide mindset that celebrates collaboration as the new pathway to innovation. We must have a new open dialogue and partnerships within the innovation environment. If we fail to collaborate and share vital tools such as data, new tools and lessons from start-up pilots, everybody loses. Conversely, if we do all of these things, everyone wins, especially patients.

Of course, these efforts will just scratch the surface of the challenges we face as an industry on our journey to the future of healthcare. But if we focus our energies on equipping our people to succeed and laying the groundwork for digitally enabled companies, digitalization will revolutionize the way we help patients and transform our industry.