How robotics is reshaping the biopharma value chain

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The emerging robotic workforce is ideally suited to tackling multiple routine administrative tasks that do not rely on human judgment. The total number of these processes is astonishingly large in biopharma, given the numerous clinical and sales call reporting procedures. Automating these procedures will enhance efficiency, reduce operational costs and enable collaboration across the entire biopharma value chain.

At the same time, automation of menial tasks will free employees to focus on activities that drive value, including improving customer engagement. Thus, robotic process automation (RPA) not only transforms the efficiency equation, but also directly enhances the customer experience. This disruptive technology can help companies organize themselves for the future, too, laying the foundation for a more autonomous enterprise driven by artificial intelligence.

To unlock the full value of RPA, it is critical for companies to not only recognize its transformational benefits, but also understand its limitations. These steps will help companies effectively implement bots and realize substantial, company-wide benefits from RPA solutions.

Clinical development: Facilitating faster clinical trials and drug approvals

Clinical-stage studies (phases I—III) cost an average of $1.1 billion over 6.6 years. The clinical development stage is thus one of the most expensive and critical in the life sciences value chain. While the science underpinning the molecules being tested is very sophisticated, the actual oversight process is highly manual and paper-based — despite the use of sophisticated software to track data from multiple sources.

RPA is of greatest value when used for rule-based, repetitive processes in drug development operations. Here are some of the practical examples that demonstrate the value delivered by automation:

  • Processing pharmacovigilance (PV) cases processing: Pharmacovigilance (PV) is a key area that could benefit from RPA. On average, a large pharma company processes approximately 700,000 adverse event (AE) cases annually. With pressure to be more efficient, companies need to be able to process this increased case load while maintaining their current cost base. Fifty percent of PV resources are currently spent on managing cases that require integration of data that varies in quality, structure and format. EY projects that by automating such manual steps the typical top biopharma can reduce time spent on PV by 45%, with potential multimillion-dollar annual savings.
  • Managing trial master process: Sponsors can record and integrate all the activities related to a clinical trial, including from multiple trial sites, in a master data repository called a trial master file (TMF). Since most of these master files are electronic in format, the “eTMF” designation is frequently used. Although the TMF structure improves audit readiness, sponsors have yet to realize their full value because documents and data are still entered manually at present.

Automation reduces the manual effort associated with data entry and document uploading into the eTMF. EY estimates that RPA could reduce the time spent on data entry by 90%, potentially saving several million dollars a year per clinical trial.

  • Supporting regulatory submission process: The regulatory submission process is time-intensive, requiring biopharmas to carry out activities that include tracking the status of documents and compiling records to create a dossier. EY estimates that RPA could reduce process time by 65% and, thus, reduce the time to market.

Sales force operations: Amplifying responsiveness and relevance of sales reps

Biopharmas use a variety of robust analytics tools from software vendors to improve the speed and flexibility of their sales organizations. Still, studies show 71% of sales reps claim to spend a lot of time on data entry. That is partly because salespeople must use multiple databases to manage disparate tasks: from tracking records and inventory, to reviewing customer feedback, to managing expenses.

Acting as personal assistants, bots are poised to become the new face of enterprise apps, quickly aggregating key data to enable sales people to focus on high-touch customer engagement. Here’s how:

  • Recording sales activities and processes: Robust CRM and closed-loop marketing (CLM) systems are some of the best ways to achieve sales force excellence. However, remembering to use the CRM consistently and accurately is difficult. A simple bot that integrates into the existing CRM system might offer big advantages. Bots can now manage routine data entry tasks, such as setting up meetings with physician groups, sending intelligent reminders for follow-up emails to prospects and customers, or providing call suggestions.
  • Retrieving accurate and timely sales data anytime: Information about past interactions are critical in making future decisions. As the algorithms become more powerful and more nuanced, bots may be able to adopt additional tasks that boost sales force effectiveness. These include assembling different data from the sales force, including past order history and contact information. This can help prepare sales reps for in-person meetings with providers, proactively flag opportunities and send follow-up notification reminders.

Precision marketing: Personalizing customer engagement and experience

The rules of customer engagement are changing. Physicians aren’t as accessible to reps, while patients are arming themselves with online medical knowledge. For both customer groups, conversational bots could play a vital role.

Chatbots won’t just be for used to buy shoes or furniture in the future. In health care, they create a mechanism to connect with key stakeholders:

  • Providing real-time tailored knowledge to customers: Chatbots could help enhance the physician experience — for instance, a physician can order a bot to bring up information related to a patient’s specific diagnosis. Instead of being inundated with drug ads published in journals or distributed through streaming media, physicians can tailor subscriptions to only those bots that focus on areas of interest.
  • Acting as a virtual medical companion to patients: Chatbots can act as virtual companions, checking when medications are taken, recording the latest biometric readings, inquiring about symptoms or making ingredient substitution suggestions to recipes found on the internet. The day may not be far off in which a chatbot, in a Q&A-style interaction with a patient, explains how a drug works and when to take it to avoid interference with other medicines.

Five steps to prepare organizations for RPA

We have seen as many as 30% to 50% of initial RPA projects fail. Often simple errors can cause delays, with projects that would take two to four weeks to deliver rapidly increasing four- or five-fold in cost and duration. Often these avoidable delays give senior stakeholders a reason to withdraw support from the project. Therefore, it’s important to recognize and mitigate these common issues in order to facilitate the success of the program.

Getting RPA into mainstream calls for a robust strategy and thorough end-to-end planning. Critical steps for success include:

  1. Define a clear strategy and build a governance structure: It is critical for companies to have a clear strategy at the outset and carry out a rapid company-wide or unit-wide opportunity assessment alongside a proof of concept (PoC). PoCs can automate sophisticated processes in weeks, which is all it takes to perform a solid opportunity assessment and create a detailed business case.
  2. Choose your RPA supplier wisely: Select a partner who will be able to seamlessly bring together end-to-end process and RPA program and change management, and operational risk management capabilities to deliver the program with minimal risk.
  3. Make risk management a key piece of the deployment strategy: A successful RPA program is a business-led initiative with strong partnership from employees, IT, cyber, security, risk, HR and other enterprise functions.
  4. Focus on measuring and realizing benefits: Ultimate benefits of RPA are derived only when automation reduces the number of FTEs. When these savings are reaped, business teams should look at redeploying or reskilling employees to deliver improved customer experiences.
  5. Manage RPA life cycle: Companies mistakenly underestimate what happens after RPA has been implemented. Handling frequent process and technology changes is critical for sustainability. This requires building a support mechanism team to provide ongoing upkeep to the RPA system, reconfiguring processes as needed.

This change won’t happen overnight. Setting reasonable expectations at the start, promoting frequent conversations between developers and users and providing competent training will facilitate the trust needed to achieve the potential of bots in the pharma space.