Four ways life sciences companies are adapting to a COVID-19 world

The healthcare ecosystem is rapidly evolving in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week, MATTER hosted a virtual roundtable with innovation leaders from eight leading pharmaceutical and medical device companies from across the world to compare notes about what they’re focused on today — and how they think the pandemic will affect the policies and norms that shape their business imperatives.

The companies who participated in this discussion are focused on an array of short- and long-term efforts — from exploring new therapies and expanding testing efforts to thinking critically about how advances made during this crisis can create true and lasting digital transformation.

Following are four key areas of focus that emerged from that discussion.

1. Shifting approaches to research and development

Unsurprisingly, several organizations shared that clinical trials for COVID-19-related therapies and vaccines are being accelerated. According to participants, in the face of this pandemic regulatory groups have become exceptionally collaborative, which has allowed projects to move through much more quickly. One participant shared that they’ve been able to stand up studies in two weeks versus a normal timeline of several months.

On the flip side, studies for therapies or devices that do not directly address COVID-19 are being delayed — which ultimately may cause delays in bringing potentially life-saving interventions to the public.

This pandemic is causing clinical trials to be put on hold for a number of reasons. Some are experiencing a fall in enrollment numbers and some are falling prey to the reallocation of provider (and R&D) resources to a focus on COVID-19-specific initiatives. To help curb the long term effect of this slowdown, the FDA recently released guidelines on how to conduct trials during COVID-19 and many organizations shared that they are thinking about how to best push trials forward in this new virtual environment.

Startups like BrainBaseline can help to accelerate this digital transition. Through a combination of patient engagement tools, BrainBaseline provides reliable mobile measurements to pharmaceutical partners and ensures protocol adherence and helps with study retention.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, connecting qualified patients with promising clinical trials often presented a bottleneck. In this uncertain time, it is increasingly important to identify virtual methods that safely and effectively identify and connect patients to trials. Life sciences companies have been turning to startups like Clara Health: an online platform that helps patients find and access promising experimental treatments from clinical trials. Clara Health recently launched the World Without COVID-19 public health initiative, which has vetted and aggregated more than 300 clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccinations, treatments and testing.

2. Virtualizing key business operations

A significant portion of business operations for pharmaceutical and medical device companies are traditionally hands-on activities. From training and mobilizing sales forces to engaging with providers and patients, life sciences companies have traditionally relied on face-to-face interactions to develop and sell their products and train the providers who use them.

For obvious reasons, in our current COVID-19 world, these normal face-to-face interactions simply aren’t possible. Nearly all of the life sciences companies who participated in this discussion are thinking critically about how to virtualize these key, traditionally high-touch business operations and help their organizations develop their new virtual muscles.

Life sciences companies have seen access to their customers narrow over the last several years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has taken that trend to the extreme. Now that they have to do almost everything virtually, they are working quickly to find the right tools to help their teams navigate this environment.

Several companies we spoke with have imminent new product launches, and they are actively assessing digital tools that will allow them to move ahead without the normal array of tools and programs they rely upon. From establishing aggressive virtual training models for providers to ensuring that reps can continue to sell in this pandemic environment, the discussion has evolved to become not only how to virtualize operations, but how to actually create an elevated virtual experience for customers as this pandemic stretches on.

rMark Bio, a startup focused on enterprise AI for life sciences professionals, is integrating Zoom directly into their healthcare provider engagement product, Cue. This feature will enable pharmaceutical reps to virtually engage with their key healthcare providers. Another startup company, LevelEx, makes video games for doctors that teach them how to tackle complex clinical challenges. Their games are used by hundreds of thousands of specialists and provide a unique marketing channel for life sciences companies.

For medical device companies, the mindset has long held that hands-on training is the best training. In a post-COVID world, they have had to completely revamp their training operations: Tasks like walking a customer through device calibrations virtually are requiring creative solutions.

Startups like ExplORer Surgical are leveraging their platforms to connect device reps to providers more effectively, even in an all-virtual environment. ExplORer’s technology provides detailed content live in a simulation environment for physician training and, during procedures, can display images and videos on mobile tablets for providers in the room, while reps monitor progress and provide live feedback remotely.

3. Mitigating supply chain disruption

The pandemic has resulted in demand for not only obvious devices like ventilators, but also for things like dialysis machines. One company on the call shared that they’ve experienced a year’s worth of demand in the last 30 days — and they don’t expect that to change anytime soon. With production facilities spread around the globe, ensuring they can keep up with demand is top of mind.

Companies with global supply chains, including in countries that were early pandemic hotspots like Italy and China, needed to take urgent regulatory action to identify product origins and find alternative pathways to meet continued demand. One company that produces materials for resuscitating patients previously believed these items could not survive air travel and needed to be shipped by boat. In a matter of five days, the organization re-tested this thinking, proved it incorrect, and are now able to ship these items across the globe much faster via air.

These disruptions have not only forced organizations to become more agile — they have allowed them to question and test their own assumptions about how the healthcare supply chain can and should function. These learnings will undoubtedly have a lasting impact for years to come.

4. Preparing for the new normal

While many life sciences leaders have mitigated the most pressing short-term issues, many questions remain about the longer term strategic implications of this pandemic. What will that new normal look like and what are the technologies that can help right now, in the next six months and much further down the line? Many leaders are thinking critically about how life sciences companies will operate going forward and, at least right now, there are more questions than answers.

More tactical questions like, “What happens if people don’t need to go into a doctor’s office anymore?” are ripe with opportunities for innovative tools and solutions. Companies are thinking about what the new norms will be around how healthcare is delivered by providers and life sciences companies. For example, one participant wondered: What new diagnostic tools will be necessary to monitor patients in real time and connect them to providers in meaningful ways?

One digital health startup, PhysIQ, has a proprietary personalized analytics system that provides continuous, physiologic remote monitoring, which is typically used to monitor at-risk populations like people with heart failure, COPD or hypertension. The solution has recently been sanctioned for COVID-19 care by the FDA. By passively collecting wearable sensor data and applying advanced analytics, PhysIQ hopes to transform the future of patient insights and ease the burden on healthcare facilities.

With the topic of digital transformation at the forefront of conversations across healthcare, many wonder why it took a global pandemic to enable this virtual world. What are the factors that held us back from having deployed these solutions before? What were the norms in place that are now being pushed aside because of COVID-19?

On one point, all participants in this discussion were in agreement: The world is going to be a very different place than it was before this pandemic. In the past, organizations have seen digital health as a topic of interest but have frequently struggled to commit to lasting structural change. The technologies that might have been nice-to-haves in January of this year have become imperative to business success. We have already seen that the COVID-19 pandemic has shaved years off the adoption curves of many innovations across the healthcare ecosystem. Our conversation last week made it clear that that will hold true for life sciences companies, as well, as they expand their digital footprints, augment their existing portfolios and apply new urgency to identifying the right technologies and solutions to help them thrive in a digital-first world.