The Bridge

8 highlights from the Eyeforpharma Philadelphia 2020 virtual conference

by Madhavi Kasinadhuni

Editor's note: This post was first published on LinkedIn.

In April, I joined 12,000+ life science executives, industry thought leaders, and patients from across the world at the Eyeforpharma Philadelphia 2020 virtual conference. Our Advisory Board team was impressed by the rich panel discussions and presentations. Nearly 1,300 attendees viewed our live session where we presented Advisory Board's latest research on real-world evidence and had a Q&A with Pfizer and ViiV Healthcare.

Your top resources for Covid-19 response and resilience

During the conference, we watched other presentations and fireside chats from some of the industry's top thought leaders. Eyeforpharma allows you to watch all presentations on-demand through May 15. In order to help you sift through the robust agenda, below we've pulled together our top 8 highlights from the conference you don't want to miss.

1. Commercial reps are becoming increasingly data-savvy.

To meet customer demands for data and evidence, commercial reps are developing a new skill set. Bharti Rai, VP Commercial Acceleration/Effectiveness at Novartis, described how Novartis is hiring an "analytical rep of the future"—a sales rep with a mix of analytic skills and business expertise. Finding candidates with the right mix of skills for this role can be challenging. But it's not just Novartis that's investing in developing these skills for their sales staff. Throughout the conference, commercial leaders suggested that while sales reps are grounded due to Covid-19, they should focus on building data analysis skills to better segment customers and individualize recommendations.

2. Medical affairs is leading the charge on scaling digital health initiatives with patients and providers.

Takeda's Jill Erickson, Sr. Director, Medical External Affairs US Medical Integration Lead and Margaret McCue, Clinical Science Director, US Medical, described how Takeda's medical affairs team collaborated with Aurora Health to create a digital app for depression. The tool aims to facilitate shared decision-making and enhance patient outcomes—and so far, it's working. Early results show sustained patient engagement with the app, improved outcomes, and improved clinician-patient engagement. This collaboration could serve as a blueprint for other pharmaceutical companies, and illustrates medical's unique ability to bridge providers, patients, and digital technology to improve outcomes.

3. Commercial and medical leaders increasingly view their customers as part of a larger ecosystem—not in a vacuum.

As the definition of a health care "customer" continues to evolve, pharma must keep up. For example, Eddie Power, VP, North America Medical Affairs, Hospital Business at Pfizer, described how pharma companies must employ "system thinking." That means understanding a product's impact not just on individual patient outcomes, but also on health system outcomes and quality metrics.

Similarly, Greg Apostol, VP, Key Account Management & Field Reimbursement at Alkermes, argued that sales reps need to be trained in relationship management and business to better understand customers' needs, values, and motivators. Sebastian Sorsaburu, MD, VP Global Medical Affairs at Amgen, summed the idea up nicely: "[Pharma leaders] need to understand broader stakeholder needs beyond the HCP and the patient, and really understand the broader ecosystem."

4. Stakeholders are experimenting with a variety of innovative financing models, but success ultimately depends on finding a common definition of "value."

Several financing models for durable therapies are being piloted across the U.S. Depending on their specific features, each model is best suited for certain circumstances. For instance, Mark Trusheim, Strategic Director at MIT NEWDIGS, described how self-insured employers face more actuarial risk than large national health plans, and therefore tend to favor risk pooling approaches over milestone-based contracts. He also noted differences by therapy type—in oncology, milestone-based contracts work best; in diseases with large populations, a Netflix model is ideal; and for orphan designations, performance-based annuities are the best approach. There's a long way to go before these new financing models become the norm. Industry stakeholders have to overcome regulatory, data, and infrastructure hurdles to operationalize even the most straightforward model. But at the end of the day, any successful model requires multiple parties agreeing on what constitutes value, and at what cost.

5. Covid-19 could change how we define and assess the value of medical interventions.

In a live panel, Robert Dubois, CSO and EVP at National Pharmaceutical CouncilSarah Emond, EVP and COO at ICER, and Chris Leibman, SVP of Value and Access at Biogen discussed how these changes could play out. In particular, the panelists debated how frameworks and thresholds for value might change: will we continue to define value as benefit over cost? How might the relative weight of specific value drivers change? Will the dollar amount of a QALY shift? If, in the case of Covid-19, a treatment or vaccine yields benefit to entire societies, how should we think about rewarding innovators? Conversations around value will continue to evolve, but Covid-19 could prompt stakeholders to grapple with these kinds of complex questions.

6. Employers struggle to capitalize on their own real-world data—and pharma can help.

Gabriel Smolarz, US Medical Director for Obesity at Novo Nordisk, discussed how employers capture a treasure trove of useful data about employee absenteeism, productivity, disability, workers' compensation, and biometric screening. In theory, employers could use that information to better understand employee health, and negotiate with payers for tailored benefits.

But accessing and analyzing that data is a challenge. Smolarz shared a case study about how Novo Nordisk partnered with employers to convey the burden of obesity in their own populations. Using employers' own data, Novo Nordisk helped them take a more "3D version of what value can be"—and demonstrated a model for future pharma-employer partnerships in the process.

7. Investments in artificial intelligence and machine learning are yielding real results, but leaders must be prepared to respond to criticisms about its limitations.

To date, pharma researchers are successfully harnessing artificial intelligence and machine learning to fill data gaps, support diagnosis, and understand disease patterns. For example, Sonal Bhatia, VP, North America Medical Lead, Rare Disease at Pfizer, discussed how Pfizer developed an algorithm to identify patients at risk for wild-type-ATTR-CM among those with heart failure. But when it comes to real-world evidence, one of machine learning's most compelling advantages is also a potential (or perceived) flaw.

As Zeynep Cozde Icten of BHE described, a key feature of machine learning is the ability to operate without a prior hypotheses. Absent the constraints of a defined research question, machine learning allows for a truly exploratory approach to data analysis. But with retrospective analyses, pharma leaders must reconcile this specific advantage with the oft-cited criticism that real-world evidence is not hypothesis-driven, is un-rigorous, and can be manipulated to find a predetermined outcome.

8. Covid-19 is prompting experimentation with virtual trials, but whether it lasts post-Covid is unclear.

Several presenters spoke about experiments spurred by the pandemic, but some of the most interesting centered on clinical trials. Various components of the clinical trial infrastructure (recruitment, monitoring, endpoint collection, evidence generation) are now being conducted through digital means. 

Craig Lipset, former Head of Clinical Innovation at Pfizer, described how pharma companies are adapting trials that are already underway to "go virtual" by prioritizing direct-to-patient supply chains, using remote monitoring, and shifting endpoints to metrics that can be collected digitally. If these innovations last in a post-Covid world, they will most likely be flexible, allowing patients to choose between in-person and virtual options.

Covid-19 is changing nearly every aspect of how we work and live, but the Eyeforpharma Philadelphia 2020 virtual conference made one thing clear: innovation in pharma will continue to thrive, even during a pandemic, but success requires collaboration across all parts of the health care ecosystem.

Watch my 15-minute presentation from the Eyeforpharma 2020 virtual meeting

Advisory Board recently presented at the Eyeforpharma 2020 virtual meeting—providing an inside look into what your customers think about real-world evidence. In case you missed it, my presentation, Rebranding Real-World Evidence: How to change how we talk about RWE and who accepts it, is now available on-demand.

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