Pharma's got its chief digital officers. Now let's see results

28 June 2019

Carly Helfand / FiercePharma

Sanofi’s newly appointed chief digital officer, Ameet Nathwani, M.D., isn’t surprised to see CDOs proliferating across Big Pharma. But he does think he and his counterparts have some work to do if they want to stick around.

Nathwani, part of a recent wave of CDO appointments at drugmakers including GSK, Novartis and Merck, says “a late realization that we were slow” has helped drive pharma’s recent push toward digital.

“You see every industry we thought was highly regulated and analog changing,” he said in a recent interview at the BIO International Convention in Philadelphia. Take banking, for example. Like pharma, it’s “a highly regulated, deeply personal industry,” but it’s light-years ahead when it comes to digital technology. It’s “completely transformed,” Nathwani said.

And that’s the kind of change Nathwani and his peers are trying to effect within their own companies. At Sanofi, he’s looking to digitize everything from the company’s supply chain to its consumer engagement, all while focusing on developing digital therapeutics and beyond-the-pill offerings to go along with the drugmaker's more traditional pharma products.

But while that’s what the role looks like at Sanofi, it’s different at other companies, Nathwani noted, adding that there are “several flavors” of CDO.

“Are they transformation officers? Are they a blend of the heads of IT and technology? Are they CTOs rather than CDOs? We see flavors of these appear,” he said.

So far, Sanofi’s gone a unique direction in selecting Nathwani—who also holds the French drugmaker’s chief medical officer title—for the position.

“We wanted to take a life sciences approach” to digital, “with a real focus on what’s really going to change the patients’ life and change patient outcomes,” he said. A focus not on just bringing Sanofi up to speed internally but on paving the way in digital health “is one of the reasons why the overlap with the CMO role makes a lot of sense.”

While it remains to be seen whether other companies tap execs with life sciences backgrounds for their CDO slots, in general, industry watchers should expect “more and more CDOs coming in,” Nathwani said.

But once the new execs arrive, companies need to make sure they’re getting results, he said.

“We all have to prove our value,” he said. Drugmakers “need to kind of be pressing us after a few years to say, ‘Well, what have you really achieved? And show me the results. Have you made us more efficient? Have you transformed the way we work? Have you created new business? Have you really given us new tools, new technologies, new drugs which are digitally enhanced? And show me where they are.’

“And that’s my task,” he said.

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