Kal Patel, MD, is CEO and Co-Founder of BrightInsight. He has over 20 years of experience in pharma, medtech and regulated digital health. 

Most people move money, shop and pay bills via their smartphone without concern. Healthcare’s move to digital, however, has been frustratingly slow. What healthcare may have lost in first-mover advantage can be gained through learning from industries that have already gone down the digital path.

Coinciding with the first-ever virtual JP Morgan Healthcare Conference, a select group of senior executives, including Atif Rafiq, former president of commercial and growth for MGM Resorts and former chief digital officer and global chief information officer for Volvo, and Amit Jhawar, former CEO of Venmo and venture partner with Accel, joined me to explore what biopharma can learn from the digital journey of other regulated industries — specifically, automotive and banking.

Automotive, banking and healthcare are all highly regulated industries, which creates challenges for digital innovation. Despite many obstacles, including culture and evolving regulations, automotive and banking succeeded in this transformation, making customer-first digital processes part of daily interactions. Driving that point home, Volvo recently added digital service booking and roadside assistance into its mobile app. And when was the last time any of us walked into a bank lobby?

Healthcare is currently on a similar path, but earlier in the journey. As CEO of a company whose mission is to accelerate digital innovation for our biopharma and medtech customers, and as an ex-biopharma exec tasked with building digital health teams and innovations, I’m intimately familiar with this journey. Here are some of the key insights that healthcare can apply to accelerate digitization.

1. Strategy is important; people and culture are vital.

Businesses have long emphasized strategy, with goals and metrics feeding into that approach. While it is important, a solid digital health strategy will only get you so far. You need an entrepreneurial culture and vision to execute digital programs. This can be a huge change for some larger, established healthcare players.

Progressive CEOs can help lead shifts in culture and drive focus, although this is just the first step. Traditional cultures will fight off an entrepreneurial change like antibodies going after an emerging disease. Adopting a risk-taking and failing-fast culture may be difficult for any large incumbent in a regulated industry like biopharma.

Commit to taking a slow and deliberate approach. Find core values to anchor both the traditional and digital business. It may not be a straight path, but you need to embrace friction as a sign you are making progress and keep moving forward.

2. Set digital teams up to succeed.

Competing for top digital talent with Google, Amazon and Silicon Valley startups can be challenging for companies that are not known for their tech prowess. Establish distinct hiring, recruiting and retention practices for digital talent, such as rewarding a person’s ability over tenure and emphasizing the mission. Establishing purpose motivates many career decisions.

With the right team in place, set it up to succeed. Build your digital program to easily calibrate and scale with autonomy. Set goals both realistic and far-reaching, and give the team room to achieve them. Place an innovation “bubble” around your digital team so they know it is safe to fail, learn the appropriate lessons and quickly adjust. It is all part of the process.

Autonomy and flexibility can be further enhanced by fencing budgets for digital initiatives. Few topics can stop business conversations faster than budgets. Separating finances ensures less concern will surround money potentially coming from an existing program to fund digital initiatives.

3. Regulations should be built into the foundation of digital health development.

Startups often focus first on generating revenue (naturally) and put regulations on the backburner. The intention is usually there to revisit regulations, and many new solutions assume their technology will be disruptive enough for the regulations to work themselves out.

This cavalier approach can be short-sighted. Understanding regulations helps you understand what is driving the ecosystem. Know everyone’s goals. For example, credit card processors want more transactions, consumers want fast and secure checkouts and regulators want safety above all else.

Establishing an early connection with regulators presents a unique opportunity to outpace competitors, along with a hand in defining a new market category and shaping regulation. Even though the option to collaborate with regulators is available to both startups and incumbents, many established players do not take advantage. Perhaps they are comfortable in their place in the industry.

4. Regulated healthcare can move fast.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that even regulated, established organizations can be nimble and partner for faster and greater change than previously thought possible. As digital leaders, we must maintain that sense of urgency after the pandemic. Continuing this enthusiasm internally around digital products and programs will help outpace competitors who may fall back into the slower pre-pandemic approach that biopharma has historically taken with digital. 

Apply similar rigor to developing digital products that biopharma currently applies to other areas, including developing new therapies, manufacturing and commercialization. Now that we have seen the potential for innovation, let’s keep reaching for new heights.


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