Smart Pharma: How Technology is Disrupting the Pharmaceutical Industry

Smart Pharma: How Technology is Disrupting the Pharmaceutical Industry

New technologies such as big data and AI are revolutionising the pharmaceutical industry. It’s a top-to-toe disruption affecting everything from patient interaction with the health system, to how they are treated. Because these changes are so radical and so all-encompassing, it’s a major challenge for pharma companies to keep pace.

Not only is innovation happening but it’s happening incredibly quickly. With its cumbersome operational base and restrictive regulatory environment, large pharma is struggling to keep up. New, more nimble pharmaceutical startups are managing to encroach on the established industry landscape, disrupting the competition.

New technologies that are likely to be disruptive include 3D printing, which can be used to customise everything from drugs to prosthetics, and artificial intelligence – both of which are changing the way new drugs are developed.

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The pharmaceutical industry needs to find ways to keep up with these changes and ensure products can still be developed safely. It’s going to require some new approaches, and the landscape of the sector is likely to change as technological competence becomes an increasingly important competitive factor.


Pharmacovigilance, the practice of studying, managing and helping prevent adverse effects from drugs, is being heavily impacted by technological developments. Data can be collected in more sophisticated ways than ever before, such as using mobile sensors to collect patients’ biometric data.

Artificial intelligence can help life science organisations filter through vast reams of this data to find how patients are really being impacted by the pharmaceutical products they are using.

To cast an even further net of understanding of how drugs may be impacting on their users, some life scientists are even using social listening-style technologies to scour the web for conversations about products.

Female doctor holding application form while consulting patient

Pharmacovigilance is a completely scientific and process-driven area within pharma and is a is a huge and all-encompassing discipline.


Technologies are helping drug manufacturers go further and faster in monitoring patient safety. They’re also helping to reduce costs and promote efficiencies by reducing manual input. Natural language processing and tailored algorithms can help sort through masses of data to find the relevant information, saving time for human workers.

It’s an intelligent way to search, understand context and clean up data to sort what is relevant. Systems can also be designed to understand the urgency of a situation and escalate where needed if a concern arises. Intelligent automated monitoring can go on round the clock, helping teams be more responsive. Technology is helping pharmacovigilance be more responsive and more effective.

These changes are bringing the industry to a whole new level of insight. Those working in pharmacovigilance are tasked to adapt to the new technologies they can use, and make decisions about which ones to adopt for their projects.

People working in this area will also need to allocate resources effectively, which may mean reducing team size but increasing the spend on technology and associated services such as third-party tech providers. The role of the IT team is going to be increasingly important.

Science fiction

Some of the technologies the pharmaceutical industry is adopting are looking increasingly like something out of science fiction. Virtual reality is emerging as a technology that could be highly valuable to the pharmaceutical industry. In particular, it can be used to educate, by visualising physiological processes and modelling compounds. This could help teach students, educate patients and convince investors.

Many of the concepts the industry tackles are complex, and anything that helps promote understanding may be beneficial. VR modelling of concepts is something that’s previously been achieved in science fiction films using CGI, now it’s likely to become a real-life tool for life scientists.

Technologies such as ‘digital pills’ could help monitor patient health outside a clinical setting. This could help improve medical adherence by letting physicians know when patients aren’t sticking to their drug regimes, and also support pharmacovigilance by identifying adverse effects speedily.

Digital pills with ingestible sensors that track if patients have ingested their medication has already been approved by the FDA in the US.

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Technology that reports back on how patients are faring may help drug manufacturers understand the real effectiveness of their products and help spot side-effects that might otherwise have been missed. It could even help identify emerging problems and help catch them before they escalate.

For the first time in a generation, the way drugs are developed is being seriously transformed. Many new technologies are being adopted into the drug development industry, including big data analysis and natural language processing to mine information from bodies of research.

Perhaps the biggest leap forward that could happen in drug development would be for human test subjects to be replaced by simulations. This would massively promote the safety of drug trials by helping eliminate problems before drugs are first used on humans. It’s also likely that this could massively reduce the costs of medical research.

But some technologies are still a long way off. Nanotechnology still seems like a vision of science fiction rather than a reality. Eventually, we could see microscopic robots being introduced into the body in order to deliver drugs, make repairs or monitor health, but it’s still a long way off. When this happens, it’s likely to be another huge change for the industry.

Disrupting relationships

Technologies that will mediate between physician and patient stand to change the relationships between patients and the healthcare system. There are many facets to this.

‘Robot doctors’ could offer medical advice to patients without the need to human intervention. Improvements in data security could help give patients secure access to their own medical records, potentially making them more proactive in their care.

Technology will enable increased monitoring of patients to see how treatment is affecting them and to give pharmacists feedback on how drugs are working.

Although there’s every reason to be optimistic about the potentials for technology to help patients take control of their health and work better with the healthcare industry to manage it, technology also delivers increased risk.

Empowered patients may take risks that the industry would usually seek to protect them from. There’s increasing concern about so-called garage labs and ‘do it yourself’ biotechnology, as frustrated patients try to hack their own health in risky procedures not supported by mainstream pharmaceutical industry.

There’s a role for the mainstream industry to play as an advocate for responsible practices and sensible use of the new technology. But the pharmaceutical industry will have its own problems to deal with over the next few years.

The fast adoption and quick advances of new technologies are likely to be highly disruptive to the industry, re-organising structures and changing competitive landscapes. In only a few years time the industry may be barely recognisable to anyone working in it today.

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