Navigating the COVID-19 pandemic has been a once-in-a-lifetime challenge for the life sciences industry. According to Sadiqa Mahmood, General Manager and Senior Vice President of Life Sciences Business at Health Catalyst, the pandemic has broken down digital barriers, accelerated drug development, and changed the medical technology and pharmaceutical markets forever.
Mahmood says that the unforeseen pandemic has had a significant impact on the entire healthcare sector, but especially on the life sciences industry because of the responsibility to develop and release a COVID-19 vaccine in record time.
Although the vaccine is playing a pivotal role in the COVID-19 road to recovery, Mahmood suggests seven big-picture life sciences trends the coronavirus pandemic ignited:
Traditional life science industry competitors (e.g., Pfizer, Sanofi, Janssen, etc.), who typically withhold information from each other, came together to research, test, and release a vaccine in less than one year—instead of the average 10-year process. These pharmaceutical companies also played a pivotal role in producing medical devices, such as ventilators, and making essential medications available.
As a result of the above successful partnerships, Mahmood says pharmaceutical companies are challenging their previous processes, identifying opportunities to enhance efficiencies, and pursuing innovative partnerships post pandemic.
COVID-19 accelerated the digital transformation of the pharma and medical technology industries, forcing both sectors to adapt their traditional in-person, onsite clinical trials process to a remote, decentralized approach.
The pandemic-accelerated digitization also forced regulators, clinicians, and patients to adopt remote monitoring solutions—including telehealth, wearables, and sensors—and electronic clinical outcome assessments. Leveraging these monitoring solutions allowed providers to drive patient engagement and collect more healthcare data, as the pandemic limited in-person interactions.
The pandemic shortened the development, review, and overall timeline for drug and vaccine market release. Regulatory authorities such as the European Medicines Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, accelerated their drug approval processes and expedited tools for emergency use, including rapid scientific advice, accelerated market authorizations, and compassionate use of certain drugs
Rather than reverting to the lengthier pre-pandemic drug approval processes, Mahmood thinks that the digital adoption (Trend #2) combined with the success of the COVID-19 vaccine mean regulatory agencies will most likely adopt these speedier processes for future vaccines and medications.
Next, Mahmood says the pandemic expanded use of real-world data (RWD) collected outside of clinical trials. With access to more RWD, pharmaceutical and medical technology companies leveraged real-world evidence to inform drug development and drug use. The pandemic-driven need to access and share data forced the life sciences industry to break down data silos, mine RWD generated from disparate resources, and ultimately drive interoperability among multiple data sources. For example, the additional real-world information added immense value to rare disease studies, for which patient volumes are low.
The increase in data sharing through interoperability led to the next trend—rapidly scaling secure cloud platforms to connect cloud ecosystems across the globe. For example, organizations that relied on cloud platforms with basic data sharing capabilities scaled their cloud solutions to accommodate broader cloud computing from more data sources. According to Mahmood, organizations that had resisted scaling their cloud platforms no longer had a choice and had to get on board to access the critical data necessary to understand and survive the pandemic.
However, the increase in systems using rapidly scaled cloud systems to share RWD has put the data at a higher risk for data breaches, especially for systems that circumvented proper security checkpoints to avoid delays during the speedy process. To minimize the risk of data breach or theft, organizations should ensure they are following best practices, such as encryption and limited access points, and continue to look for opportunities to secure their data.
Early in the pandemic, shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical devices (e.g., ventilators) shined a light on healthcare’s reliance on trade and manufacturing distribution overseas. To decrease these foreign dependencies, organizations brought production back on shore in the U.S. and found ways to think out of the box. For example, U.S.-based manufacturers had to find ways to store vaccines that required specific conditions and specific distribution channels.
Since the pandemic, supply chain processes now incorporate technology, data, and innovation. For example, decision makers now use data and automated technology to follow real-time inventory for PPE and vaccine distribution. Innovative, improved processes allow providers to match the potential demand, identify supply bottlenecks, and recognize secondary sources to address shortages.
Organizations increased their focus on achieving equity in healthcare in race and gender in patient care and clinical trial recruitment efforts. Using data that more accurately represents different races and backgrounds allows the life sciences industry to develop drugs, vaccines, medical devices, and more to better understand and meet the needs of their populations.
While the pandemic triggered a short-term transformation in the life sciences industry, Mahmood says that the industry will see an accelerated digital evolution in the long term. The above seven data-focused, life sciences trends will continue to drive pharmaceuticals and medical technology companies and others in a data-centric direction that puts patients first.
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