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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

Novartis’ digital transformation is about unifying data and making it impactful, says digital chief Jeremy Sohn

Novartis is one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, but no longer considers itself as just a medical science or bio-science company, according to its VP, global head of digital business development & licensing, Jeremy Sohn.

Instead, he tells delegates at the Medidata NEXT 2018 conference in New York, that when the company talks about its digital transformation, it talks about itself as a medical science company enabled by digital, technology and data – three areas that he feels are intrinsically linked.

Sohn explains that the company has been on this digital transformation journey for many years but has taken it up a notch over the last couple of years after evaluating the industry and the situation that it finds itself in.

“We need to bring products to market faster and better and at the moment it is taking us longer to get drugs to market than any time before; it’s 12 to 15 years at a cost of $2bn, and we can’t afford for ourselves, for patients and businesses to allow this to expand,” he says.

“But it’s complicated because science is getting harder and there’s more and more data to aggregate, to analyse and to action,” he adds.

Novartis isn’t just rethinking the way it uses data for clinical research programmes but from various other angles such as the patient experience. It’s for this reason that the company chose to use Medidata SHYFT’s Intelligent Platform for Life Sciences, in order to better share data and insights across its clinical development and commercial teams.

“We have the benefit of being one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world which means we’re supporting approximately 100 new trials and 100,000 patients a year and this means we’re collecting more data. However,  the complexity of the trials is harder,” Sohn explains.

While Sohn acknowledges that the company now has access to many IoT technologies to gather more data from, he says that the company recognises that it doesn’t really understand the patient journey as much as it would like to, and that this should be the focus.

“For example, we have a ground-breaking drug for heart failure but one of the biggest differences in understanding the value of the drug by patients and doctors was that after taking it for four weeks or so, patients don’t only say they feel better but they say they can do things they haven’t been able to do in years,” Sohn states, giving the example of patients being able to pick up a grandchild or walk down the road.

“But how do we track that in the clinical trial? Sure I can put a Fitbit on and I can use a survey and ask 35 questions but these are hard things for us to capture so we’re still experimenting to get that seminal piece of information which is actually driving what is a best-in-class drug for patients,” he adds.

This kind of data on patient experience is different to talking to physicians about the science, or getting data from random clinical studies or empirical studies of the heart getting better – but it’s very hard to capture these meaningful insights.

Novartis, which runs 500 clinical trials across 60 countries with 100 clinical trial sites, is also using data to analyse how it runs and operates its own business to ensure efficiency.

Reimagining medicine

Sohn uses an analogy of Novartis being like a dysfunctional airport when it comes to data.

“We have hundreds if not thousands of planes in the air and we don’t know which planes are going to land on time and not, so we need to line up the data but the reality is our limiting step is patient recruitment. We have too many sites but they’re delayed – we need to do it better and so we built systems internally and build on our Medidata platforms to do it better,” he says.

“Ultimately we want to do this because we want to reimagine what medicine looks like,” he adds.

As part of this push to ‘reimagine medicine’, the company is developing and commercialising a range of digital therapeutics for patients with substance and opioid use disorders. The aim is to effectively treat disease and improve clinical outcomes for patients.

But Sohn believes the data that the company collects from the app, along with its other clinical trials, and real-world evidence, could also be used for the 100,000 interactions the company has with health care professionals (HCPs) every day.

“If we leverage Medidata SHYFT and use all of the data and analyse it and give real-time information to our field, such as who to meet, where to meet them, what to say to them and what information to push to them – that is so powerful,” he says.

“Our next challenge is to bring all of that data together, and we’re on that journey now to be able to reap the fruits of those efforts,” he adds.