Why digital health partnerships are the best way for pharma to remain competitive

September 14, 2020 Jim O'Donoghue

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Why digital health partnerships are the best way for pharma to remain competitive

Pharma companies are under constant pressure to innovate and stay competitive, whether that’s in drug discovery, business strategy, or elsewhere. 

The emergence of digital health solutions is perhaps the most significant development in the industry to date – and offers huge opportunities for innovation. But most pharma companies don’t have the skills internally to create digital innovations on their own, and those that do often outsource or bring in external experts to support digital health projects.

Rather than a barrier to growth, this is an exciting opportunity for the industry. Partnerships between pharma companies and specialized digital health providers have the potential to bring huge benefits to patients, clinicians, and pharma itself.


Why there’s a need for collaboration

Pharma companies have complex clinical knowledge and a deep understanding of disease pathology. Individual pharma brands themselves have forged strong identities and a clear sense of where their products fit into the broader healthcare landscape.

But with data, analytics, and digital health solutions set to be indispensable to the continued success of the pharmaceutical industry, there’s a clear need for pharma to leverage specialist digital expertise to stay competitive.

There’s no need to start from scratch: specialist digital health firms are in a place to provide that knowledge. Evidence-based, ‘digital-by-DNA’ healthcare is already demonstrating a significant impact on healthcare provision, improving patient quality of life, and making clinicians’ jobs more effective.

Working together, pharma and digital health businesses bring the best of both worlds to the table, resulting in holistic technology solutions that can improve patient and clinical outcomes, and deliver a competitive edge to market offerings. 


Why digital health partnerships are the way to go

There’s a range of ways pharma companies can incorporate the expertise of digital health companies.

While in-housing and acquisitions are perhaps more obvious methods, partnering with digital healthcare providers is the easiest, most cost-effective approach for most pharma companies for several reasons.

Developing solutions in-house is often the most expensive option, and marrying the culture, speed of innovation, and agility of digital health businesses with the existing structures and processes of a large pharma company can be difficult. Pfizer’s digital transformation initiatives are a good example of what in-housing can look like, but a project of this scale is unachievable for most pharma companies.

Acquisition and investment are beset by similar issues: costs play a role, but there’s also the concern that incorporating agile digital start-ups into larger, risk-averse pharma giants may hamper innovation. There are examples of digital health company acquisitions by larger pharma giants like Roche and Novartis, but for many, acquisition is just not feasible.

Partnerships, therefore, are the answer for many – even some of the biggest operators. In fact, collaborative partnerships account for 73% of all digital health related partnership activity. In our experience, these collaborative partnerships can work across a wide range of therapeutic areas, throughout the commercial drug life-cycle, and are as relevant for biotech startups launching their first product as for huge pharma companies with broad portfolios.

Not only do partnerships unlock new knowledge and innovation that businesses need, they also have the potential to drive an overarching ‘democratization’ of the digital health space, giving opportunities to smaller companies that are unable to commit to as much up-front investment as the largest pharma giants.

By lifting barriers to entry, smaller pharma companies can be infinitely more agile. That makes it more likely that any proposed solution will make it to market, resulting in a wider breadth of solutions for healthcare providers. 


How partnership models are keeping pharma competitive

As pharma companies continue to add services and solutions around their core pharmaceutical products, partnering with digital health companies presents a clear and proven path to market, and may even offer a competitive ‘head-start’ in the form of ready-to-use digital platforms. 

Our Affinial platform is just one example. Affinial is a foundation on which all other elements of a digital health solution can be built. It uses cloud technology to link together different connected devices so data can be managed centrally, giving users real-time insight into the impact of their approach. Based on solid security and regulatory principles, it offers compliance with GDPR and HIPAA, as well as other region-specific laws and guidelines. 

For our partners, that’s brought a range of benefits, from reduced operational costs across the board, to a quicker time to market, and less regulatory burden. By taking care of the digital needs of our pharma clients, they can focus on improving lives and health outcomes.

Given the benefits, pharma companies need to make sure that the partnerships they seek are the right fit for their businesses. So how can you ensure you get the decision right?


What to consider when searching for partnerships

Every partnership is different, and you need to think about what model best aligns with your strategic goals. It’s important to have a long-term strategy that defines what you will deliver internally compared with what a partner will provide. 

Whether your digital ventures are motivated by new revenue models, new modalities of care, better patient outcomes, or changing business expectations, collaborating with a digital health provider can deliver far more than just digital know-how:

  • Legal manufacturer status: Aside from providing additional expertise and capabilities, digital health partners can also take on the role of legal manufacturer for any new solution, where appropriate; reducing the regulatory burden on pharma companies.


  • Data management, analytics, and insights: Given their data expertise, digital health companies are usually best placed to oversee data management, analytics, and insights for any proposed digital health solution.


  • Go-to-market execution: Most pharma companies aren’t set up to bring digital solutions to market, and existing salespeople in pharmaceutical companies may not have the skills or setup to position digital health solutions with clinicians – but a digital health partner can do this for you.


  • Life-cycle support and service evolution: Digital health solutions require continued evaluation and evolution throughout their lifetime to ensure that they are keeping users engaged and delivering value. It’s important to establish who exactly is responsible for these commitments to avoid any kind of disruption later on.


  • Regulatory support and post-market surveillance: Post-market surveillance of any proposed solution is essential. Establishing who is responsible for the task ensures any solution results in the best possible outcomes for patients, remains compliant with all relevant laws, and guarantees any issues are resolved as efficiently as possible.


Don’t do it alone

At S3 Connected Health, we understand the power of partnerships. Whatever your digital health needs, we have a wealth of experience in collaborating to deliver robust digital health solutions across multiple disease areas.

Find out more on how we can help you in our latest whitepaper, Pharma’s path to market for digital health solutions.

Jim O'Donoghue


S3 Connected Health