From Doers to Designers | Straight Talk

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Technology is transforming the very nature of IT in the pharmaceutical industry

Over the last ten years, we in IT have moved from being doers to designers. This doesn't mean we don’t do, it doesn't mean we do not execute. Don’t get me wrong; eventually, we still have to execute. But these days, you have to be able to think and design together with your non-IT colleagues (your business partners and stakeholders) if you want to be really influential.  

Understanding the business processes and the business itself has become more and more critical. This is particularly true in the pharmaceutical industry, which is complicated and highly regulated. If you think about all the functions that you have in Pharma – R&D, manufacturing, supply chain, commercial – you really have to be an expert in the business and in Pharma before you become an expert in technology.  

An added challenge we face working in IT in Pharma is that we’re in a very risk-averse industry, which is as it should be. Obviously, everything we do must be of the highest possible quality and in line with regulations.

Digitalization reaches Pharma

In spite of that high level of risk-aversion, Pharma is starting to experience a digital transformation as well. Digital is coming into the industry through many doors: software, data, hardware, and business models.

For example, the way clinical trials are being done is a methodology that hasn’t changed in the last 75 years. But now technology is coming that will make clinical trials faster, safer, and more accurate. Instead of reporting on a result, you can actually utilize a sensor that measures vital signs from a patient attending a clinical trial and have real-time reporting of the results.

Digitalization is also making another important goal of the industry, personalized medicine, a reality. Eventually, the Pharma industry wants to be able to tailor the treatment, the solution, the drug to a specific person according to his particular characteristics. We are not yet there, but Shire is making some real advances now, thanks in large part to IT.

One area in which personalized medicine will be very useful is in rare diseases. By definition, a rare disease affects a relatively small number of patients, but if you look at all these people with rare diseases as a cohort of 350 million, they may be the largest underserved patient population in the world.

Shire is the leading global biotech focused on rare diseases. Our efforts are already having an impact.

For Hemophilia A patients, we developed myPKFiT for ADVATE. It’s free software for healthcare professionals who treat patients with ADVATE, one of Shire’s FVIII (a clotting protein) replacement therapies.  This software helps determine an ADVATE patient’s individual pharmacokinetic, or “PK,” characteristics and, using some algorithms we’ve developed, recommends a personalized dosing regimen. The software was cleared in the US by the Food and Drug Administration.  An accompanying mobile app for patients is also available, allowing patients to log their infusions and bleeds, and also to track their estimated Factor VIII levels in real-time. This type of personalization is where medicine is going. 

The other area in which IT is making a contribution is diagnosis, which is a big problem in rare disease. On average, it takes five years for a patient with a rare disease to receive a correct diagnosis.  Fifty percent of rare diseases start in childhood, and 30 percent of children with a rare disease die before the age of five. 

As a result, it is imperative that we work to shorten the time to diagnosis. Increasingly, healthcare organizations are discovering the value of using advanced analytics to support doctors in diagnosing patients with rare diseases earlier.  Many rare disease patients experience multiple symptoms, traditionally visiting a different specialist to address each one without knowing that the symptoms are connected to a rare condition.  The problem is, if you look at each symptom on its own, you would not suspect it’s a rare disease. It’s only if you see the collection of symptoms together in one patient that the possibility of a rare disease is discernable. Shire is exploring the use of Artificial Intelligence  to provide doctors with insights that previously were not possible, effectively saying, "Hey, see these symptoms? Maybe this patient has a rare disease."

It’s about the people

Other aspects of IT aren’t changing at all. One is that IT is part of the business and you need to run it as a business. Customer service and satisfaction are key. Second, IT is a tough job—systems may not always work as planned. As CIO, it’s important to be visible to your team and to your stakeholders and colleagues as these issues arise.

Lastly, your primary focus as CIO isn’t actually technology—it’s people. I studied psychology at university, not computer science. While some may think that’s a handicap, it is—in fact—one of the most practical things I could have done: Everything I do involves working with people first, then technology. Sometimes CIOs forget that. Whether it’s your people or your colleagues outside your department, whether it’s the stakeholders or management, eventually 90% of what you do involves the people around you and providing them the service they expect.

The Takeaways 

IT is no longer about building things, it’s about designing things.

Digitalization is transforming every aspect of the pharmaceutical business, from clinical trials to the treatment of rare diseases.

The CIO’s job is very much about people.