We live in exciting times. New technology and innovation that can change the way we live, is pouring out at unprecedented frequency. It is well known that although the pharmaceutical industry is considered to be very technologically advanced, it is also one that is quite inward focused and therefore stuck in the past. Therefore, it has been of great interest to me to understand how advances in technology and innovation are shaping trends and how ready the industry is for those trends.
From my viewpoint, in the last few years, the industry has defined its success on how it handles the following three trends:
- Increasing Role of Generics
A record number of patents expired in the last few years. As soon as a drug goes off patent, generics force drug prices to drop by almost 85 percent. Pharmaceutical companies have responded to the generic threat in several ways.
It was thought that the most promising approach is drug companies getting into “branded generics” themselves. The logic was that these branded versions of their original drugs sell for higher prices than unbranded generic equivalents but are less expensive than the true branded product. While this didn’t work for ‘innovator companies’, it did throw up a vast generic industry globally with companies such as Teva, Valeant and Mylan growing into industry dominating positions as governments around the world preferred cheaper generics.
- Emerging Markets
Rapid growth in emerging markets is a beacon of hope for the pharma industry. The Indian and Chinese drug markets could grow even more rapidly. However, drug firms’ traditional approach of creating drugs in the West and then pushing them in the East is not likely to work any longer for a several reasons.
First, there is a significant price pressure in these emerging markets, which argues for a stronger role for branded generics. Second, drugs developed in the West are not always relevant in emerging countries. Virally induced cancers, for example, are rare in Europe but common in China. Finally, the insurance and payment systems in many of these markets are quite different from those in the developed world.
- Outcomes – based medicine
Pressure on healthcare costs is rapidly pushing pharma to enter into outcomes-based pricing deals with payers. While there have been a few noteworthy ones so far, companies are likely to add more to that list soon. A majority of health plans want to ink outcomes-based contracts with companies, particularly in the high-end, niche and ultra premium priced therapies such as hepatitis C, oncology, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis among others. Even drugs for widespread chronic conditions–such as cardiovascular medicines–are also on payers’ radar.
Unless the preference for outcome based drugs picks up faster, the industry is due to commoditize itself. As the blockbuster model becomes less dominant and the market becomes more competitive, commoditization has led to business models to become more customer-centric.
We have seen medical costs increase per capita even though the industry has commoditized. With costs increasing, and patients expected to pay for innovation on their own (as payers fail to keep up with technology and innovation), the following three trends are set to change the way health care will be consumed. How cognizant pharma is to these trends will probably decide how it moulds itself for the near and foreseeable future.
- Personalized Medicine and Empowered Patients
Personalized medicine and targeted therapies can significantly increase the effectiveness of new drugs in specific patient groups. Drugs that would be deemed ineffective in typical clinical trials now have a chance to show high degree of success among certain patients.
This changes the economic model of firms and calls for highly specialized marketing. Some experts argue that this specialization may force the industry to move away from its vertical structure and focus instead on a few core areas such as drug discovery or development. It also calls for drug firms to take a larger role in diagnostic procedures. This trend is very promising, and is fast expected to come of age.
Unless payers place a premium on outcomes-based, patients will have to self-finance this innovation. How will pharma react to it? When patients pay for innovation, they research it, gather information around it and update themselves regularly. Here lie opportunities for pharma to engage with empowered patients.
- 3-D printing of drugs
The first 3-D printed drug was approved by the US-FDA in 2015. If the trend catches on – and it surely will – patients can print their pills on their own and completely bypass pharma. All they need is to use the algorithm or procedure that will become available on the internet and use a 3-D printer at home.
Business savvy pharmacy chains may sell these procedures to patients instead of pills. In its current state the pharma industry has no control on 3-D printing and no coordinated action to counter it. Does it have a scenario with an action plan ready? And if you think it sounds like science-fiction, be aware that human organs that were made using 3-D printers have already been used for transplants.
Google announced recently that it launched a feature called symptom search which seeks to use its vast computational prowess to help patients self-diagnose their symptoms. In its current mode, this is unthinkable in pharma that always tells patients to consult their doctors.
Google’s use of combining big data to mine zillions of patient records and match symptoms search words to throw up the most relevant answers is a show of how artificial intelligence and big data can be harnessed through the power of supercomputers. Another example is IBM’s use of machine intelligence to scan through zillions of doctor notes and available medical literature to throw up diagnosis and treatment plans for treating diseases. Imagine the impact this can have on pharma which prides itself as the sole owner of information on disease and drugs. This, it considers, is its sole value proposition to its health care professional customers. With supercomputers, artificial intelligence and big data, pharma risks losing the very value that drives its customer interactions and therefore its business. Does pharma have a plan to counter or harness this development?
The challenges facing pharma due to developments in the outside world are not routine ones in the traditional sense. The solutions will revolve around ‘unlearning’ a lot. It will be very interesting to see how a traditionally technologically advanced sector surfs the wave unleashed by rapidly developing non-traditional technology.