How big pharma is using technology to get closer to patients

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How big pharma is using technology to get closer to patients

Inside Cochlear and AstraZeneca’s ‘patient engagement’ projects.

AstraZeneca and Cochlear are among a wave of pharmaceutical and medical companies using technology to forge closer, direct ties with patients.

The two firms used Salesforce’s annual Dreamforce conference to show off their respective “patient engagement” projects and platforms.

A recent survey by Deloitte – which offers tools in the space, and counts AstraZeneca among its customers – found three-quarters of pharma companies felt pressure to offer “patient services” in addition to drug products.

“We’re not alone in providing services beyond the medicine that we make,” AstraZeneca’s global commercial IT director Rochelle Guico-Lennon told the Dreamforce conference.

“Patients are really wanting more and expecting more from pharmaceutical companies, and the companies are engaging those patients in multiple channels.”

Just how much patient engagement companies will be able to get will largely depend on local laws in the markets in which they operate, but the firms have made it clear their intentions are to take patient engagement global.

“Though we’re implementing first in the US because that’s where the health system allows us to really reach out to patients, and we have a lot of patient services that we’re offering, this is meant to be leveraged across all of our markets,” Guico-Lennon said.

“It’s a massive undertaking, and if you’re in pharma you know any system is not easy to implement.”

PEP in step

Consumers typically initiate contact with a drug manufacturer - it’s now that the manufacturer wants to keep and build on that direct relationship.

“In pharma we don’t reach out to patients; the patients typically find us through their physicians,” Guico-Lennon said.

“They all opt into these services [we provide] so there’s program enrolment - a consent process - we have to go through.”

AstraZeneca starting looking at the patient engagement space in more detail two years ago, though it took until the last quarter of 2015 to begin its patient experience platform (PEP) project.

The first PEP capabilities were introduced in the US this year, and works are expected to run through 2018.

The company had started offering patient services prior to PEP but its approach was “fragmented” and no connection was made between interactions involving a single patient, Guico-Lennon said.

“Largely the reason for that is because patient services ownership is spread across therapeutic areas that we have,” she said. “Inevitably, [different areas] want to do their own thing.”

Guico-Lennon said AstraZeneca wanted to have more “seamless, coordinated engagement” with customers of its products and services.

To do that, it had to bring together all the ways it engaged with customers under one project and platform.  Enter PEP - a “single enterprise IT ecosystem” underpinned by Patient Connect, a solution developed by Deloitte Digital and Salesforce.

“PEP is really about connected patients, connected care, and connected AstraZeneca services,” Guico-Lennon said.

“It’s a single org, patient-focused design. It makes it a lot easier to connect all those conversations we’re having with our patients.”

Into the clinic

Australia-based Cochlear has been on a well-publicised journey to “shift from being an implantable device company to engaging and empowering the customer”, its global head of digital technology services Vishy Narayanan told Dreamforce.

“We continue to innovate on the product side but we realised that isn’t enough. We need to do a lot more than that,” Narayanan said.

Narayanan said that while 360 million people worldwide suffered some form of hearing loss, “less than five percent actually choose to do something about it.”

For those that did choose to take action, Cochlear decided it wanted to be involved as early as possible and to continue its involvement throughout their journey to improve their hearing.

“The majority of the transactions of a customer today happens in the clinical setting, and typically the company is not really involved in that,” Narayanan said.

“Once they go into the clinic historically that’s been a black box for us.”

However, Cochlear is now breaking some of these barriers down.

The company now allows prospective users to customise implant accessories as soon as they decide to take action.

“As you can imagine, a medical device purchase is a very big decision but we’ve tried to make it a bit more consumer-friendly, to humanise it to some extent,” Narayanan said.

“What we’ve done is provided the ability for some of our customers to pick and configure their product even before they see it.

“So once the doctor has said, ‘this is the product for you’, rather than say just ‘give me whatever colour and accessory’ I can now go online and customise it. I can pick the colour of my processor and the accessory I get with it, and essentially it’s delivered to me in a personalised way.

“This is something small we’ve started doing, and we can only do this because of backend platforms like our Oracle ERP system and Salesforce that allows us to assimilate this information and send it to our customers.”

In addition, earlier this year, it introduced Cochlear Link, which stores a customer’s “hearing map” - which is created in a clinical setting - in the cloud, allowing Cochlear to access and use it to create and ship a replacement sound processor on the same day it is told of a customer’s malfunctioning device.

“That used to take anywhere between 4 to 6 days so we’ve actually cut the cycle down to improve the customer experience,” Narayanan said.

The clinical ties

While medical and drug companies are using technology to forge and manage direct ties with the consumers of their products, it is still in many cases a brave new world, with many challenges still being worked through.

Some of those challenges include convincing legal departments to allow the creation and storage of patient records, particularly in the cloud, and determining who should be able to access the data.

“It took a while for our compliance and legal department to truly understand the risks and balance that with the business objectives that we wanted to achieve,” Guico-Lennon said.

“We had to make them comfortable with the security policy we put in place, and the fact that data is encrypted in Salesforce, as well as in transit. We had to prove to them the data is secure.”

In addition, she said, “not everyone sees patient-identifiable information.” Many of those working with AstraZeneca’s PEP only see the data in aggregate form for reporting purposes.

Both AstraZeneca and Cochlear are also wrestling with how much access clinicians – the traditional relationship owners for patient care – can and should have to the information stored in these systems.

“We are still in the process of working on that, but what we’ve tried to do is provide them access to their own referring information,” Cochlear’s Narayanan said.

“We’re still going through that journey of making our legal and our compliance people comfortable with HCPs [health care providers] accessing the information that our patients share with us or that’s been documented by our [call centre] agents,” AstraZeneca’s Guico-Lennon said.

“What we’ve done is allowed the patients to print out all the interactions they’ve had with AstraZeneca and then they are the ones giving it to the HCPs.”

Ry Crozier attended Dreamforce as a guest of Salesforce.

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