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Transforming Clinical Research with a Consumer Mindset

Adama Ibrahim speaks about viewing the patient as a consumer and implementing disruptive technologies, on a practical and strategic level, in an organization. She is Director of Digital Solutions at Novartis, with over 20 years experience working in the industry.

August 12, 2021
Transforming Clinical Research with a Consumer Mindset

What does it mean to have the patient as a consumer?

COVID has really taught us a lot about how we actually access normal day-to-day services as the general public. That means a lot more people have started to do their grocery shopping at home, their clothes shopping, etc.: everything that you would typically have to do physically, we have found a way to do remotely. When I think about the patient as a consumer, I actually do not have a distinction. If we do, then we are actually adding complexities to user journeys. There are different profiles for consumers, by age, gender, socioeconomic culture, etc., and it is the same for patients, by disease areas.

So if we apply the same rules that we typically do in the consumer world, into the patient world, while adapting into the profile of the patient, I think we will see more success. This has been translated across regulated environments, like banking, which is similar to the clinical research and healthcare environments. I do not think we have a reason to actually feel that we should treat these environments separately.

Why hasn't this mindset been more widely adopted by pharma? 

One of the reasons I have found a slight hesitation in adopting these types of more mainstream consumer or other industry digital solutions, has been because of this perceived red tape within the R&D space. Even within pharma, there is a disconnect with the commercial space, because somehow they are seen as separate environments. For regulation, they are separate. But from a user profile, we serve the same user types. The closer we bring those two user profiles and domains together, the more success and acceleration we will see.

If the clinical research becomes a standalone and isolated user journey, it becomes more inaccessible, and also becomes more burdensome especially for underrepresented groups. Think about how frictionless your banking experience is. I have spoken quite widely about my “best friend,” Cora. She is a chatbot that my bank has introduced. She has learned all of my predicted questions, and she has the answers ready. And therefore, I feel really positive when I have these interactions with the bank, and the bank in return gets a solidly loyal customer. Imagine that experience now transferred to the clinical trial space.

Why do you think that a similarly regulated industry like banking has done a better job of digital adoption/transformation?

I remember when I did my MBA dissertation on implementing patient engagement in biotech, my references were all from banking. I looked at the customer engagement model in banking, and guess what? The research that was performed at the time (early-to-mid 2000s) was really looking at the transfer of physical banking to digital banking.

So to learn how best to adapt to our regulated industry, you need to go back and ask, “How did the banking industry do this when it was regulated?” First of all, they understood their customer journey and customer behaviors. Then identified the right parts of the workflow to be digitized. After implementation they applied customer engagement metrics and linked these back to business outcomes to reinforce the transformation practices.

And that whole process evolved by bringing in the skillsets to actually build the infrastructure. I have many friends who have gone into digital banking, to actually build secure cyber security networks, with a frontend that is friendly for consumers and on the backend, secure to the point where multiple banks can now share an app. So within one bank’s app, you can now actually merge my other banking accounts.

Can you imagine one pharma company having treatment allocated to a patient, and then that same patient being able to access a different pharma company’s treatment, all through the same app? The banking industry noticed skill shortages, advanced technologies to suit them, and throughout were able to maintain an engaged and loyal customer. There have been significant advances in the pharma industry from discovery, development and commercialization of medicines, in the use of digital technologies that are commendable to date. For instance, many pharmaceutical companies have set up dedicated digital departments, using AI and advanced data analytics. Nevertheless, our robust infrastructures still require adoption of many new technologies, in order to continue compliant delivery of medicines to patients through effective drug development and secure market access. Therefore, in order for us to evolve, we have to continue to listen, learn, partner and upskill.

"Within pharma, there is a disconnect with the commercial space, because somehow they are seen as separate environments. The closer we bring those two user profiles and domains together, the more success and acceleration we will see."

What is the change management required to implement the use of disruptive digital technologies in R&D?

In my opinion, one of the stumbling blocks with introducing any new technology or capability to any industry is thinking of the legacy system and infrastructure, because there will always be a trade-off. When you talk about something new, it is human nature to have a fear of change. Therefore, change management needs to be sensitive to the current landscape and the types of people that work in pharma. We are traditionally very risk-averse. We have these strict regulations and guidelines. We also have historical experiences of how things can go wrong, and the reputational impacts that are hard to overcome.

One of the elements to consider for successful change management is, first, having a top-down and bottom-up approach. Top-down is solid support and endorsement by leadership. And then bottom-up is to upskill the team and have the experts in the team own and identify the gaps in knowledge, resources, capability, etc., so they become more empowered to resolve those gaps.

How do you develop the processes to bring a solution from pilot to implementation?

Transformation typically starts with defining the value proposition. This can be for patients, HCPs or companies. Then pilot to prove that the value is achievable. Then it comes to scale where the review of existing ways of working is important since some tech require only enhancements/ slight changes, not a completely new way of working.

In my own experience, I found that as much as possible aligning to ways of working helps, so that not only do you create an incremental change in terms of whatever you are producing, but actually do not drastically disrupt what people are doing so their day-to-day looks so different that it unsettles.

One example of this is for a change I did in a previous role: I worked with a team to evaluate a series of SOPs. It is a critical job, because sometimes you assume a change would require new SOWs and new processes, when in actual fact, it is an enhancement of your existing processes and your existing way of working. If you understand your current processes deeply enough, you will gradually make changes that are more compatible to how your team operates and that does not unsettle people as much.

You will have to pilot, which is part of our scientific nature. However, piloting should come with a different, more evolved way where we were testing hypotheses. This way we are continuing to become more aligned to our ways of working. Then, people do not see the change as something different but rather part and compatible to what they do.

"When you talk about something new, it is human nature to have a fear of change. Therefore, change management needs to be sensitive to the current landscape and the types of people that work in pharma."

How can sponsors identify digital technologies that follow similar lines of adding to what is currently being done, versus shifting away in a new direction?

Companies have to make decisions that suit their objectives and strategies. But in terms of success, I always start with the patient, asking if we can meet our diverse patient needs better, whether it is through digital, or in other ways. If we are able to stay grounded and anchored on what patient needs are and how we can meet that better, then it helps us to prioritize what it is that we want to deliver to really support the patient through that journey. Those are the areas that I would look at, and I will never assume I have those answers myself. It is important to ask the patients as well: what do they want? What is important? And how does that change their experience or the overall interactions that they have along their patient journeys?

What has driven your passion for digital innovation and for transformation in clinical research?

As a child, I was never that technical. As I grew older, my curiosity increased significantly. At university, that curiosity led me to study physiology, which is a study of how the body operates as a machine. And that was the immediate spark, because I look at our bodies as systems. I look at function as technical. So when it comes to digital for me, it just makes complete sense that the physical and digital come together in a complimentary way to enhance our overall consumer experiences which extends to any service, whether it is healthcare, clinical research, etc.

For more information on DPHARM: Disruptive Innovations to Modernize Clinical Research, visit DPHARMconference.com. To listen to Ms Ibrahim speak on a panel discussion about bridging the digital divide, click here. To watch Ms Ibrahim discuss how to enable an end-to-end digital transformation strategy, click here.

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