By James Chase, freelance writer and editor


Ever had one of those revelatory moments when someone, or something, questions the logic behind your established, “tried and trusted” approach to performing a particular function or solving a certain set of problems – “Why are we still doing it this way?” – and the only honest answer you can think of is, “Because that’s how we’ve always done it?”

Unsurprisingly, the pharmaceutical industry is working through many of these types of scenarios. Having flourished for decades on a steady diet of doing things basically the same way, this intrinsically conservative, slow-moving juggernaut of a sector has been thrust into finding alternatives that will enable them to maintain an edge in the face of advancing technology, shifting priorities and evolving expectations.
One such function that might benefit from a little more self-scrutiny is information management (IM). Most companies continue to commit significant amounts of budget and resources to data. But are they getting enough value from that commitment? Are they approaching IM in a way that even makes sense?

There’s an argument to suggest that pharma companies are continually trying to reinvent the wheel, and with limited success. It’s the equivalent of milking a cow to make a latte, or trying to generate your own electricity – there are already people who do those things well, so that you don’t have to. Could the pharma IM function, then, be streamlined and improved by essentially outsourcing the lion’s share, allowing valuable resources to be redirected towards more progressive, productive uses?

Richie Etwaru, chief digital officer at IMS Health, certainly thinks so. “The essence of civilization is that we mute functions over time,” he says. “We mute things so we no longer have to worry about them, so that we can worry about higher-level problems.”
Etwaru is talking about things such as file-zipping software, cranking car engines, generating power, computer file storage – we no longer have to figure that stuff out. Those functions have been commoditized and “muted.”

But not information and analytics, at least not yet. “Pharma still buys data as a differentiating factor, and they try to extract value from it themselves,” Etwaru says. “But they often don’t know what to do with it.”

By taking such an approach, companies are prone to committing a number of analytical “cardinal sins.” One, they often buy the same data sets multiple times across different divisions. Two, they often fail to share the data across their vertically designed organizations, whose incentive models are not conducive to sharing. Three, their key performance indicators are inconsistent, and so everybody is looking for different things and in different ways. And four, they are not pulling in the various data sources that will give them the most complete and accurate view of the customer. There are, no doubt, many others.

A service approach to information management

Aside from helping to eliminate some of those cardinal data sins, what can a service approach to information management do for the pharma organization?

An obvious benefit is that it can improve the quality of basic information. For example, in a multichannel, multistakeholder product launch, the most expensive component is likely still the face-to-face rep interaction with the doctor. But if an address is incorrect or outdated, or if the physician has changed her schedule and is not in the office on the day of a rep visit or no longer even works at that location, the cost can be significant. It is vital, therefore, to have systems capable of collecting such updates and pushing them to CRM systems in realtime to make sure that reps are alerted to changes.

Another is the ability to measure, synchronize and respond quickly to customers’ actions. For example, in a digital marketing campaign, when a physician opts out of a particular email or topic or channel, it can be a valuable piece of information – but only if the data is being managed effectively. In this case, if the information reaches the rep in time, she or he can make it a point of the conversation in the next visit, and find out why the doctor opted out and perhaps discuss a more interesting and relevant alternative that he might want to opt into.
Similarly, communication with an accountable care organization (ACO) might reveal that a particular doctor is on its formulary committee. Again, that is valuable information because if it is processed and fed back to the rep in time, they can develop a different type of conversation with the doctor, based on that information.

“Pharma doesn’t necessarily have the operational discipline and capacity to be able to load all of that in real time, process all of it in real time, synchronize it in real time, and then deploy it back out to the various channels,” Etwaru says. “Information is still consumed in a very transactional, a la carte way, and it’s consumed without a set of predisposed key performance indicators (KPIs) about what you’re going to do with it. Companies will buy an analytics system and run some sort of insights application on top of it, and hire a bunch of people to build repeatable processes to extract value from this data because they believe that they’re going to arrive at amazing insights that will lead to stronger brand performance. And the reality is, that doesn’t happen.”

Major industry shifts impacting commercial tactics

Companies’ need for help has been exacerbated by a couple of major, ongoing shifts within the industry. The first relates to the post-blockbuster economy in which pharma now operates, which has led to something of a change of approach to business. This new reality of reduced resources means that companies must focus efforts on the “high-value” tasks and seek partners to deliver in other areas.

“If pharma companies spend a thousand personnel hours a day doing information management, it’s not what’s going to differentiate them from one another in the marketplace,” says Mike Allelunas, General Manager, Information Management, at IMS Health. “It’s just table stakes. What’s going to differentiate them is trustworthy information that effortlessly feeds analytics and ultimately drives enhanced execution.”

The second shift pertains to the changing customer. For a long time, it was all about reach and frequency, seeing prescribers often. Now there’s a much more complicated picture of the customer, with the emergence of integrated delivery networks (IDNs), ACOs and the importance of communicating with payers – an entire family of caregivers.

IM as a subscription service based on desired results

An alternative for addressing the IM gap is built on the notion of buying results rather than a collection of products and data sets. It’s about pulling together all of the a la carte assets and harmonizing them in a way that actually drives business value. It’s essentially the idea of standardizing information management as a subscription service that delivers a particular level of outcome based on chosen parameters – such as the stipulations that 95 percent of doctors’ addresses must be accurate, or that information must feed back to reps within two days, using the earlier examples.

“Why are companies buying these things one at a time and then struggling to assemble them by themselves?” Etwaru says. “What if we were to extract the master data management, the analytic services around it, and the business intelligence consulting, and bring it to the marketplace as a service? So that companies could say, ‘You guys figure out how to do it – how to keep the data fresh, how to master it. You figure out how to give me the analytics on top of it to tell me the next best customer or the next best action.’ ”

An information management “results solution” is comprised of the information asset itself, a storage capacity for it, and a set of compute applications that run on top of it, which together offer real time integration. The level (and price) of service is determined by a set of service-level agreements (SLAs), between client and provider, so essentially the client is paying for an agreed outcome. An audit system then makes sure that this SLA-defined outcome is being achieved.

What, then, are the hurdles to adoption?

According to Etwaru, pharma’s organizational structure has played a major role. “Because pharma was enjoying north of 40 percent margins for the past two decades, there’s been a tremendous amount of waste and a vivid vertical organizational design in many of the large companies where every single brand, region or market has their own profile data. But pharma is starting to pivot into this horizontal transformation where we’re going to see information management as a shared service function, and that is what will drive the ability to consume this info.”

Another hurdle is pharma’s historical instinct for control. However, Etwaru believes that, when it comes to data, ownership and control are two different beasts. “They all have their own copies of their data,” he says, “but the pharma company as an entity has no control over how that data is used to drive business value.” And that control comes from sharing data horizontally across vertical silos.

“If pharma wants to compete in the marketplace with the new information sources, they’ve got to get to a point where they’re reallocating attention and their efforts away from the old data sets like script and profile data,” says Etwaru. “They have to stop worrying about doctor profiles. They need to buy that as a service and focus their attention on these new data sets because that’s where the competitive opportunity is.”