EPharma: Closing the Productivity Gap

EPharma: Closing the Productivity Gap

E-pharma's tighter networks are increasingly helping companies to streamline the way they do business and promise significant productivity gains to those who stay the course.

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EPharma: Closing the Productivity Gap

The pharmaceutical industry's productivity squeeze grows tighter by the week. Investors demand double-digit growth in revenues and profits, and a pipeline flowing with new drugs to replace the blockbusters that fuelled those historic growth rates. Regulators and consumers, meanwhile, clamour for lower prices, which may have the unintended consequence of curtailing the cashflow required to fund innovation. Small wonder that global pharmaceutical companies point to regulators as the culprits in boosting development costs and pin their productivity hopes on mergers.

Yet a number of sector players are taking their fate into their own hands. They are quietly making gains by rewiring their operations. Researchers now have at their disposal high-throughput technologies for identifying, testing and analysing new drug compounds. With the right information technology infrastructure—much of it Internet based—and a strategy designed to take advantage of networked business systems, companies can absorb vast amounts of data and still tighten the linkages in discovery, clinical trials, approval and marketing.

The new methods are one of Big Pharma's few hopes for closing the gap between the number of new compounds they expect to produce over the next three years (1.8 per year) and the number they will actually need (3-4 per year) in order to meet investors' expectations. Closing the gap will require shortening the timeline for bringing new drugs to market by at least 30%, as well as more effective marketing to speed the adoption rate among physicians.

Advanced players such as Aventis, Pfizer and Novartis are shortening cycle times by enabling researchers from universities, biotech partners and pharmaceutical companies to collaborate simultaneously on various stages of discovery. Electronic data networks provide the means for integrating these collaborators, both within and outside the company.

The efficiencies of "e-research" can save pharmaceutical companies 10-15% of their development costs, according to a recent study by Bain & Company. That's a substantial amount, but pharmaceutical companies place even greater value on their ability to manage the flood of knowledge that's generated internally as well as externally. Bringing all of that information together into a coherent, accessible system greatly improves the odds of finding the right drug candidates.

In the traditional research process, scientists confirm results before passing the baton to those in charge of the next stage of development. But e-pharma's electronic networks and expansive protocols for sharing knowledge enable research collaborators to work in tandem. The enhanced capacity to track many individual compounds in an orderly fashion allows multiple partners inside and outside the lead company to weigh and prioritise targets while they conduct basic research.

Novartis has used such an approach to link drug R&D labs in three different continents. The company installed a global system to share scientific resources and results, with secure access and a powerful database engine capable of pulling answers from several different data types. Developing a new drug these days often requires global collaboration across several disciplines and research areas by many different professionals. The industry leaders are organising their e-research systems around centres of competence, and establishing knowledge networks that allow researchers to locate others around the company involved in similar projects. Indeed, Bain studies suggest that building competency centres focused on therapeutic arenas can lead to a doubling in growth and profits. Companies that establish e-research capabilities that span their organisations can accelerate returns, cutting 20-30% of the time it takes to bring new drugs to the stage of clinical development.

Clinical trials constitute the biggest portion of R&D spending by pharmaceutical companies and consume more time than any other development activity, lasting anywhere from four to six years on average. By using web technologies, virtual private networks, data warehousing and other forms of automation, some companies have reduced overall trial times by 30%. Yet, remarkably, only about 10% of trials currently employ electronic data capture.

The leaders in e-clinical trial technology have dramatically reduced the time they spend on patient recruiting, training, registration and tracking. One company that specialises in patient and site recruitment, with more than 175 trials at 3,200 sites involving 1.5m patients, cut patient recruiting time by up to 90% when it shifted those activities online. Another provider of clinical services—more than 40 major trials with 20,000 patients distributed among 26 countries—reduced total trial time by 30%, using electronic data capture to collect and monitor patient data.

Like all pharmaceutical companies, Novartis stands to improve productivity substantially if it can accelerate drugs through the US Food & Drug Agency (FDA) approval process. To do that, its researchers needed to share information more efficiently. But with ongoing clinical trials across the US and around the world, Novartis still required tighter linkages in its clinical network. So the company implemented electronic document management and publishing applications for all regulatory submissions. Novartis researchers have access to up-to-the-minute data for the entire drug development process, from clinical trial data to manufacturing information.

Instead of the usual truckload of paper accompanying a typical submission to the FDA, Novartis now sends electronic files. The resulting efficiencies have the potential to halve preparation time for a drug submission—from 12 months to six.

Sales and marketing is still a muscle game for most pharmaceutical companies. Their investments focus on large, commission-driven salesforces targeting physicians. From 1994 to 1999, the number of sales reps working for the top 40 US pharmaceutical companies increased by 11%, but the number of sales calls grew by only 2%. E-marketing offers a way out of the trap, giving pharmaceutical companies a vehicle to compete on agility rather than brute force.

Pharmaceutical firms are beginning to deploy electronic detailing services, which allow physicians to use the web or a phone to receive specific information on the intricacies of a drug. The cost advantage can be $100-125, or about 50% per session. Drugmakers are also developing physician-oriented portals and thought-leader intranets where doctors can exchange information about the efficacy and safety of different drugs.

For patients, online information on diseases and products brings transparency into medical practice and reinforces the brand as a trusted provider of therapies. Patients are increasingly going online to find information and participate in their own care. Indeed, according to a recent study, of the patients who searched the web for information about their medical condition before seeing their doctor, more than 60% came to their first visit with a specific request for a drug already in hand.

This means that Big Pharma firms, which have generally viewed physicians and big insurance payers as their customers, can increasingly benefit from using electronic channels to reach consumers directly, as well as to strengthen the loyalty of their traditional customers in the healthcare industry. The key is to reach patients online with information about the efficacy of their products and the conditions they treat and to add value for physicians by giving them tools to do independent research, and fresh ways of understanding the details of new drugs. The role of the salesforce shifts to managing the relationship and understanding the needs and preferences of physicians.

Although Big Pharma has yet to broadly web-enable operations, e-pharma's tighter networks are increasingly helping companies to streamline the way they do business and promise significant productivity gains to those who stay the course.

Norbert Hueltenschmidt is a vice-president with Bain & Company in Munich. Russ Hagey is managing director of Bain's Los Angeles office. Both are leaders in the firm's global healthcare practice.


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