Mass General Brigham, AstraZeneca discuss making pharma-provider partnerships

The pair talk about the shift from traditional clinical trials based on drug research to digital innovations.
By Laura Lovett
02:01 pm
Speakers at Accelerate Health

(Photo credit: HIMSSTV)

The history of pharma and provider partnerships spans back decades, and has traditionally focused on the development of new drugs. Digital is coming into the fold of health, forcing those partnerships to go through a metamorphosis to include new tech.

“Industry and academia have been working together for decades in a pharmaceutical sector, but historically the relationships did not extend beyond the traditional sponsored clinical trials for drug research,” Adrian Zai, director of research at Partners eCare Mass General Brigham, said during HIMSS’ Accelerate Health event today.

“Recently, with the emergence of digital health, industry and academia are exploring new partnerships to collaborate on the development of new digital health technologies.

One such partnership is that of Mass General Brigham and pharma company AstraZeneca. The two have joined forces on digital research and innovation programs. Representatives from the organizations say that the common priorities of clinical evidence and patient centricity have made the partnership work.

“About 95% of care today happens outside of the clinical setting. That means it’s episodic. When a patient is feeling bad, they come in or they consult their doctor. Something is given to them, and then there is a big gap in understanding what is happening in the real world with these patients,” Karan Arora, chief commercial digital officer and global vice president at AstraZeneca, said during Accelerate Health.

This is where digital could be used and help both pharma companies and providers, said Arora.

“It’s a natural partnership, where you come to providers and say there’s an opportunity where we don’t know what is happening with patients in the real world. If we could bridge that opportunity and provide more insight, then, clinically, we could change our practices for these patients,” he said.

Mass General Brigham has a track record as an early adopter to new innovations. However, the real push to go digital was a result of the coronavirus pandemic.  

“Prior to the pandemic I would say we were dabbling and experimenting, trying to put together limited resources around experimentation,” Sara Silacci, director of strategic alliance initiative at Massachusetts General Hospital, said at Accelerate Health.

“What we learned during the [COVID-19] surge was, we really don’t have time to continue to experiment. So, identifying the right partners that we know how to work with and that share with us a similar sense of urgency and belief in digital health just became of paramount importance.”

Pharma and health systems' history of working together meant each better understood the other’s perspective and process, according to Silacci.

“First and foremost, wanting to solve the same problems to improve patient outcomes was key – and again, the shared philosophy around what sort of process needs to happen before you put something in front of a patient or a provider,” Silacci said.

“For us to be able to do that, we needed to be able to understand the perspective of the pharmaceutical companies. I think there is a misnomer out there that providers shy away from working with pharmaceutical companies. Pharmaceutical companies make the very solutions our patients need, sometimes, to get better.”

The assets that each stakeholder brings to the table are also critical. In the case of pharma and provider, each brings a vast array of subject matter expertise and data.

“[There is] robustness of data on the provider end, and the robustness of data on the pharma end. There should be no reason why we should still be debating which patient is the right patient for the right kind of therapy – that delivers the best outcome in the shortest time possible. That should be a challenge we look at and say, we can solve this,” Arora said.

Providers have also teamed up with startups to work on new digital tools. Silacci said that, while these are necessary, there can be conflicting perspectives between the two stakeholders.

 “We’ve experimented partnering with technology companies … and we do understand we need to partner and collaborate with tech companies to bring these solutions to market. But I think again just the perspective that pharma brings to the table complements our perspective,” Silacci said.

“It truly is about how it impacts the patient, and not about how the solution is crafted and made. I think when we’ve worked with the tech companies, it becomes very tech-driven as opposed to solution-driven. Those are two very different things.”

Silacci’s advice to new companies looking to get into healthcare goes against tech’s "move fast and break things" motto.

“The real message to all the digital health companies and startups is: You may think getting first to market is best in digital – and it often is in software – but not in healthcare. Take the time to do it right,” she said.

But it’s not just startups learning about the new frontier of digital. Pharma and providers are still hammering out what works in terms of process, evidence and patient experience.

“This level of partnership is new in the industry,” Arora said. “To be fair and balanced, I’d say there is a lot of learning amongst both pharma and providers. We typically approach these partnerships the way we used to approach it in the past, where we were trying to run a large-scale clinical trial, where we are trying to use the same contracts or process.

"From a pharma standpoint, we need to evolve and change how we do it. From the provider standpoint and [academic medical center] standpoint, it’s probably also taking on an element of risk that is not typical in an [academic medical center]. It’s when do we have enough evidence, where we believe we should scale this.”

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