Digital technologies have pervaded the biopharmaceutical industry due to customer demand and the need to find better ways to connect with stakeholders faced with COVID-19 restrictions.
As surveys show, the pandemic forced companies to prioritize their investment in digital innovations and implement these technologies across the entire business. For most companies, digital adoption has become a strategic priority to stay ahead of the competition.
“People have been talking about digital transformation for some years; the pandemic just accelerated everything,” says Kevin Yapp, global head, omni-channel transformation, at Swiss eye health company Alcon. “I try not to talk about digital transformation as it’s almost a cliché. Digital tools and channels are how our customers and our patients want to talk with us and transact.”
Like many companies, Alcon’s customer challenges have been a compelling reason to accelerate digital capabilities. Healthcare professionals tend to value solutions that can streamline processes and reduce the amount of face-to-face time. In the last two years, many physician-patient interactions took place using telemedicine, and more digital technologies have come to the fore to assist with those interactions.
However, that isn’t always possible. As a developer of eye care products, many of Alcon’s customers are optometrists who need to see patients for eye exams. While many of these physicians continue to require masks, certain time demands — like wiping down all equipment between visits — have taken a toll on practices during the pandemic.
“Their ability to handle the volume of patients that they need to see is massively reduced, so anything we can do to help them reduce chair time and spend more time with patients is a big deal,” Yapp says.
Here, Yapp talks about Alcon’s digital strategy and what good digital transformation looks like.
PharmaVoice: Why was it important for Alcon to embrace and embark on a digital transformation?
Kevin Yapp: The way patients want to find out about products and the way doctors want to learn about them has moved to digital channels, and companies need to respond to those expectations. That’s why digital transformation has become so ubiquitous, because everybody has to be where their customers are.
But while lots of companies are adopting digital, the priority for us has been to put the customer and patient at the heart of all of this. It’s about starting with what the issues are in the customer or the patient journey that digital technology might help to address.
What approach or steps did you take to drive this transformation?
About three and a half years ago we began by conducting some deep research in about 12 or 13 countries, what we call the ethnographic phase, where we observed how people lived their lives, used contact lenses and got their new prescriptions. That allowed us to see some obvious barriers for people or ways in which we could use digital technologies to help customers overcome problems or communicate better.
As an example, we develop intraocular lenses which are used in cataract surgery, and some of the more advanced technology lenses have multi-focal capabilities to assist with near- and short-sightedness. However, some lenses can cause glares, which is when light hits the lens, and that can cause a halo effect around headlights, which is a problem for people when driving at night. So clearly we need to educate the patient about different vision issues, but to explain this to an older patient who might not embrace digital technology can be a challenge. To ensure the eye doctor is at the heart of this patient education journey, we've created an app that assists the healthcare professional with showing patients what different types of vision look like in different settings, such as in a café or when driving.
What kinds of challenges did you have to address during the transition to digital?
Since the pandemic, conversations have largely moved to social media, but the industry is covered by guidelines that were written 10-15 years ago when social media was starting to emerge as an advertising vehicle. So, one of the biggest challenges is balancing the need to operate compliantly within the legislation around social media and being where our doctors and patients want to engage.
Another big challenge is that sometimes digital players try to undercut eyecare professionals (ECPs) and that’s something we want to avoid. The point of digital should be to help them see more patients, get better outcomes and use digital tools to improve their learning. We have a platform that was written around the way ECPs want to do business, based on their workflow, which has helped a lot of U.S. customers embrace digital tools rather than seeing them as a threat.
The third challenge is around privacy and consent management and how we use data. We’ve all been affected by companies like Facebook who have abused our data. That means ensuring that we get the right consent and only use patient data to help those individuals with a healthcare issue.
Can you offer some examples of how digital capabilities assist customers?
Our customers are having to cope with the same volume of patients in a COVID-restricted environment, so they have had to become more efficient. If they can do patient triage online, or an initial patient interview online, or if they can get the patient to fill in forms online and cut out all of those inefficiencies, then they get to see more patients. We're very focused on chair time and reducing the time patients and customers spend dealing with questions that can be dealt with in advance using digital tools.
What would you advise other life sciences companies to think about as they embark on their digital transformation?
No. 1 is to fixate on the customer. That's your North Star. Talk to your customers and put them at the heart of the digital transformation.
Another is to recognize the people piece in all of this — your stakeholders who are doing the work, the people that feel threatened by digital, the people that stand to benefit from it, the people for whom change will be a challenge. You can come up with the cleverest idea in the world, but unless you take people with you, it's pointless. And finally, stay giddy and excited about changes that will really improve life for customers and patients.