Rx for online growth

The pharmaceutical industry may not yet be leaping into the Web world with unabashed excitement, but some companies are slowly becoming more comfortable with embracing new technologies.

This wait-and-see approach is to be expected because "the pharmaceutical industry is relatively conservative for a lot of reasons," says Lisa Boehm, an analyst at Forrester Research, noting that companies in this industry tend to be large, "siloed by function," and heavily regulated.

"Add to that the conservatism that says, 'We don't necessarily want to be the first ones out of the block because the FDA or some other regulatory agency could nail us for it,' and you get a very pragmatic, measured approach [to moving operations online]," Boehm explains.

Pharmaceutical industry technology trends often center around improving levels of communication between doctors and the pharmaceutical companies as well as between patients, pharmacists, clinical research groups, and government regulators.

"It's not just that communication goes more smoothly [with technology]," says Richard Williams, vice president of U.S. e-business at AstraZeneca, a pharmaceutical company. "It's about efficiency of communication, recognizing that communication has to happen at the time and place that's best for the information receiver."

Many pharmaceutical companies are also adopting technologies such as handheld devices, CRM (customer relationship management) technology, and e-detailing, which uses video-on-demand to let doctors contact their pharmaceutical company representatives whenever they have a question, instead of waiting for a scheduled meeting.

AstraZeneca has been using e-detailing with success, as well as using handheld devices to provide physicians with a convenient source of information during discussions with patients or colleagues. The company has looked into b-to-b endeavors and hopes to launch an e-procurement program this year, "but our focus has been on the compliance side of procurement, as opposed to the exchange," Williams says.

Williams adds that another area of industry interest centers around "e-clinical," which involves moving more of the clinical trial process for new drugs and treatments online. This could include putting trial members' diaries online, more quickly sharing information with regulatory groups, and simplifying the search for participants.

"As well as being cost-effective and geographically diverse, [the Web allows companies to] potentially gather a community of people who would be interested in trials coming down the Web," Boehm explains.

It is that capacity for community interaction that has also attracted pharmacies to the Web. Mike Weidman, manager of information technology for Medicine Shoppe International in St. Louis, says that MSI has been bringing their pharmacies and pharmacists to the Web by providing computers and customizable Web sites, as well as an online prescription refill service and, in July, other e-commerce options.

MSI uses a private Internet site, accessible via its Medicine Shoppe Connect System, to provide business information on the site and through PDF newsletters and e-mail bulletins, eliminating costly mass mailings. The site also gives the individual pharmacies secure access to all of MSI's information about their stores and the ability to update that data themselves.

"Another advantage to the Medicine Shoppe Connect System is the discussion forum, which is used quite frequently," Weidman adds. "Prior to the computer, the pharmacists' communication options were limited to Medicine Shoppe meetings and telephone conversations."

Weidman sees the pharmaceutical industry heading toward more of an ASP (application service provider) model, where information is stored in a central location from which pharmacists and physicians can draw the data or applications they need. All the work being done with online prescriptions and other services helps familiarize users with the Web. "It is vital that this adjustment be seamless so that business may continue as normal and no one becomes frightened by the new technology," he adds. "We try to be as prepared as possible."

Indeed, being prepared for technology --and making it mesh with business goals -- will be key for the industry.

"Whether it's e-business or i-business, at the end of the day, it's all about business," says AstraZeneca's Williams. "If we do this right, it's not 'e-procurement,' it's just 'procurement'; it's not 'e-clinical,' it's just 'clinical.' There's a component that's leveraging the new technology and modifying how we execute things, but it doesn't necessarily change what we're all about."

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