How digital helps a life sciences leader move at light speed

Pfizer’s Chief Digital and Technology Officer explains how digital is transforming her organization’s ability to bring new medicines to patients at speed and at scale.

As part of our Quantum Jump series exploring digital transformations in life sciences, McKinsey hosted a virtual fireside chat with Lidia Fonseca in January 2022. As Pfizer’s Chief Digital and Technology Officer, Lidia is responsible for all data and technology solutions across the organization. She brings more than 20 years’ experience in healthcare to her constant quest to improve outcomes for patients through the application of data and digital technology.

In her conversation with McKinsey partner Siddhartha Chadha, Lidia reflects on the value of digital, data, and artificial intelligence in life sciences and healthcare, the contribution digital has made during the pandemic, and the importance of mindsets and culture in achieving lasting change. This is an edited transcript of their discussion.

Siddhartha Chadha: What role does digital play in advancing Pfizer’s purpose?

Lidia Fonseca: Pfizer’s digital group seeks to drive innovation across the value chain, with three strategic priorities in mind: improving health outcomes for patients, bringing medicines to them more quickly, and fueling tomorrow’s innovative therapies. All these link back to our purpose—breakthroughs that change patients’ lives.

The healthcare industry is being rewired across the entire patient journey, from how patients access healthcare to how they pay for it and how they experience the delivery of care. The intersection of healthcare with the digital sector is accelerating this transformation.

The healthcare industry is being rewired across the entire patient journey, from how patients access healthcare to how they pay for it and how they experience the delivery of care. The intersection of healthcare with the digital sector is accelerating this transformation. The pandemic acted as a catalyst, making people more fluent in using digital technologies and more receptive to virtual engagement. The effects can be seen everywhere, from patients to healthcare providers to regulators.

As the traditional setting of the physician’s office gives way to virtual forms of engagement, more payers are reimbursing digital visits and services. Data analytics fueled by machine learning [ML] and other forms of artificial intelligence are accelerating drug discovery and development and enhancing prevention, early detection, personalized treatment, and digital therapies. Quantum-computing capabilities will help us bring medicines more quickly to patients. Distribution is being reshaped by online and retail pharmacies and new intermediaries.

We believe that COVID-19 has advanced these trends by as much as five years. It’s not so much that these are new technologies, more that we are applying them at scale.

Siddhartha Chadha: What difference did digital make when Pfizer faced the urgent need to develop a COVID-19 vaccine?

Lidia Fonseca: Simply put, digital enabled us to develop a safe, effective vaccine in record time, without cutting corners. Within four months, we scaled our clinical trial to 46,000 participants at 150 sites in six countries. Real-time predictive models of COVID-19 incidence at a local level helped our clinical-development team to target clinical-trial sites and optimize site selection. AI and ML helped our scientists quality-check and analyze vast amounts of trial data in near-real time. We were able to refresh participants’ data every four hours, helping us to present the trial and the data in record time.

That marked a paradigm shift. Cloud-based technology allowed investigative sites to share source documentation remotely with site monitors, a task previously performed in person. Between March and December 2020, 75 percent of site-monitoring visits for the vaccine study were conducted remotely; before the pandemic, the norm was about 17 percent.

On the manufacturing front, we set up our industry-first digital operations center, which provides an end-to-end view of manufacturing and allows us to predict issues and make adjustments in real time. We also deployed augmented reality to diagnose and repair equipment remotely in our labs and manufacturing sites, helping to keep our colleagues safe and to reduce travel for technicians. Within weeks, we developed new end-to-end cold-chain capabilities throughout our supply chain, so that we can monitor shipments and temperatures anywhere in the world in real time.

Adding to all this, new supercomputing capabilities are reducing computation times for highly complex calculations and scientific simulations by 80 to 90 percent. This is helping our scientists to fast-track compounds such as our COVID-19 oral treatment. Essentially, what might have been many years of labor-intensive research was reduced to months and weeks, thanks to supercomputing.

Siddhartha Chadha: How is digital influencing areas beyond the vaccine?

Lidia Fonseca: If we look at improving patient health, digital helps us enhance diagnoses, treatments, and adherence. For example, our AI-powered estimator tool helps healthcare providers understand clinical red flags in risk factors for ATTR-CM [transthyretin amyloid cardiomyopathy]—a rare, serious, and underdiagnosed form of heart disease. We’re exploring similar predictive algorithms in oncology, growth hormone deficiency, and other therapeutic areas.

On the commercial side, we’ve introduced our digital-rep adviser, powered by AI and ML. It’s a tool that arms sales teams with targeted decision support to make their interactions with physicians more effective. On the clinical-development front, we’re maximizing the use of AI and automation in research and transforming our clinical studies to reduce cycle times and widen access. For example, all our studies now have at least one digital interaction; in some cases, participants don’t even need to come to a site. Our Phase II trial for Eucrisa was the first ever to be conducted entirely through virtual channels.

We’re also using ML to boost our ability to monitor safety profiles and ensure compliance with regulatory obligations. In discovery, we’re simplifying and accelerating our scientific research to fuel the next breakthrough therapies. AI is helping us to source the world’s best science, to double our innovation success rates, and to bring medicines to the world more rapidly. We’re investing in platforms for mRNA [messenger ribonucleic acid] and other new scientific technologies that give us the flexibility to make modifications quickly.

AI is helping us to source the world’s best science, to double our innovation success rates, and to bring medicines to the world more rapidly.

Siddhartha Chadha: In the past few years, Pfizer’s culture has been transformed by the application of digital technologies and the search for a COVID-19 vaccine. How would you describe the culture that you were trying to foster?

Lidia Fonseca: When the pandemic hit, we anchored to our purpose and set three priorities: ensuring our colleagues’ safety and well-being, continuing to deliver critical medicines to patients around the world, and using all our expertise and resources to find a solution to COVID-19. Our innovative culture helped us to think differently about how to achieve those priorities under immense time constrictions and pressure.

We maintained a hyperfocus on the customer, whether that was a patient, a healthcare provider, a health system, a regulator, or a colleague. We embraced “horizontal” thinking geared to what the patient is experiencing rather than our own “vertical” internal processes. We focused on a few critical shared goals and minimized bureaucracy. And we emphasized outcomes—not activity—through an enterprise-wide effort to embed agile cross-functional ways of working.

Siddhartha Chadha: The pandemic has been a time of incredible uncertainty and a test of resilience and decision making for business leaders. What have the challenges of the past two years taught you about leadership?

Lidia Fonseca: I believe in setting an ambitious vision that people can invest in, backed by clear goals that address near-term pains as well as the long-term transformation. By prioritizing efforts that serve our customers and deliver tangible outcomes, we’ve been able to increase our focus and speed over the past two years. And for a leader, surrounding yourself with great talent has always been vital. Transformations succeed only when the whole organization becomes the change you’re trying to achieve.

Siddhartha Chadha: When you look to the future, what excites you most?

Lidia Fonseca: In the next five to ten years, I expect patients to be using mobile devices and advanced wearable technologies to access personalized, convenient, and real-time digital health support. Pharma companies will need to work with other key players in the healthcare ecosystem to provide that experience.

In discovery, I expect AI to play a part in a substantial number of new molecules. As quantum computing is adopted more widely, we’ll see discovery and development happen at a speed we can’t yet imagine. In development, the use of digital technologies will become commonplace in clinical trials, and advanced predictive analytics will be deployed to optimize the design of trial protocols. Many trials will be run in a decentralized way to maximize access and convenience for participants.

It’s not about creating a digital strategy for our business but about creating a business strategy for a digital world.

On the commercial and medical side, digital medicines and digital health will become the norm. It’s not about creating a digital strategy for our business but about creating a business strategy for a digital world. By moving more quickly to personalize innovations and bring them to patients at scale, we can drive innovation, build momentum, discover and deliver the next wave of breakthroughs, and take life sciences to the next level.

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