Digitisation and Covid-19 in the pharmaceutical industry: three testimonials from our customers and some numbers

The Covid-19 health emergency has confirmed that a digital company is also a resilient company, capable of adapting quickly in the wake of unforeseen events and guaranteeing effectiveness and continuity of its core business processes. In the pharmaceutical industry, this means ensuring that drugs and medical devices – which must meet stringent quality and safety requirements – continue to reach patients in a timely manner.

A LifeBee survey on Laboratories conducted in November 2020 confirmed the role of digitalisation during the Covid-19 pandemic. Responses collected from lab managers and analysts, IT managers and process efficiency managers in more than 30 pharmaceutical companies revealed that:

  • 41% of interviewees cited insufficient digitalisation of laboratory processes as the main cause of slowdowns associated with the pandemic
  • 35% more than a third of respondents, cited the activation of Lean projects as a solution to address new lockdowns.
Covid-19 and the value of digitalisation

In fact, those who were ready were able to respond quickly to the emergency and also took full advantage of the opportunities that were created.

For example, a Nomisma survey on generic drugs showed that in March 2020 orders for many products related to the management of the Sars-Cov-2 virus grew – in just one month – between 128% and 782% compared to the previous year. However, only the most innovative companies – which had already implemented many digital tools – were able to react quickly. According to the survey, only 40% of manufacturing companies managed to seize this opportunity, while more than half achieved only ‘partial success’ and 7% did not meet the surplus demand at all.

In addition, 60% of respondents cited the availability of a system for complete supply chain traceability and the use of predictive models as essential factors for rapid response in times of emergencies.

The importance of having digital systems already in place in the pharmaceutical industry is also confirmed by the experience of Matteo Santi, compliance and quality director of the Helsinn Group, a Swiss company with a broad portfolio of innovative therapies for cancer and rare diseases, with worldwide distribution.

«In the Lugano office – he explains in his interview – remote working was nothing new, but until then only 20% of employees were using it. In a fortnight, the IT team succeeded in the impossible mission of extending this possibility to 100% of the office staff».

This was possible because Helsinn has invested in digital transformation over the years and many of its processes are now fully electronic and paperless. These include: the lifecycle of GxP documents, (around 3,000 policies, procedures and forms), main processes in Corporate quality management system(change control, deviation, CAPA, Oos), laboratory LIMS systems, batch release, contract review, and ethics and compliance assessment of third parties (about 2,000 collaborations).

Covid-19, a booster for digital transformation

Having demonstrated the benefits of a structured digital system, the pandemic has also forced a further acceleration of planned digital transformation programmes. Projects in the pipeline have taken on a new priority and, in pharma companies, a process has begun that is strongly sponsored by top management to complete the digital transformation, building on the lessons learned during the pandemic. The aim is to extend the overhaul process to the majority of operational workflows to make them more agile, streamlined and effective by also initiating the more advanced – or complementary – phases of the programmes.

«The pandemic, in my opinion, was a booster – said Toni Valente, director of Pierrel’s Capua plant – and a catalyst for a process that many companies, organisations and civil society itself were planning, but much more gradually. From one day to the next, we found ourselves overturning attitudes, behaviours and organisations that had been consolidated, for better or worse, for years».

To maintain business continuity, Pierrel adopted leaner procedures, which required a different mental and operational approach, and new ways of dealing with its responsibilities. Despite the fact that the plant operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, more than 30% of the staff in the support structures now work in smart working mode.

Here, too, the information solutions already included in the automation, integration and digital transformation plan have been an indispensable support and for this reason expanded and consolidated.

Post-Covid-19: the evolution towards the “new normal”

«I believe that we must evaluate this working scenario by stripping it of the emergency need and replicating its positive aspects, so we can turn what has been achieved into a systematic and fluid process».
Toni Valente, manager of Pierrel’s Capua plant

The digital transformation in Pharma companies, however, should not be an extemporaneous response to an emergency, but the result of a precise strategic planning. As Davide Smaldone, Corporate IT Demand Manager at Menarini, explains, in the pharmaceutical industry the goal of digital transformation is not the mere transfer of physical processes to digital media, but the complete overhaul of work processes and their integration into a new, more complete, rapid and effective flow.

«Companies that want to take advantage of this circumstance to change the way they work – says Smaldone – will have to continue this journey by rethinking their processes so that they are natively digital. This is the only way we will be able to implement a solid and lasting change that is equally efficient for employees and companies».