by Vikas Jain, Vice President and Business Head, Life Sciences, Tata Consultancy Services

To say that the life sciences industry has been in the spotlight in recent months would be an understatement. From big pharma to biotech, medical devices to in-vitro diagnostics, the whole sector has been pulling together to battle the novel coronavirus. And it’s done so in adverse circumstances – with lockdowns and pressure to deliver solutions in unbelievably short timeframes.

Back in March when the coronavirus pandemic was really starting to affect India, my first priority was the health and safety of our associates and the people who work with us. We quickly enabled 100% business continuity for our clients by moving from a centralized office model to new distributed working using TCS’ innovative Secure Borderless WorkSpaces (SBWS) operating model. SBWS™ allows an enterprise to take full advantage of Talent Cloud anywhere in the world to maximize business outcomes.

We continuously focused on workforce wellbeing, organizing webinars to help our people adapt to the new dynamics of home working including yoga, healthy lifestyles and ergonomics, as well as the practical aspects of collaborating in a virtual workspace.

Now this initial period has passed, I believe that the aftermath of the coronavirus will lead to more fundamental changes in the life sciences. 

Here are three key areas that companies in the sector need to set their sights on to become more resilient and agile as the world starts to emerge from the shadow of COVID-19.

Managing fluctuating demand

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One of the key challenges has been to keep delivering medicines and services to patients despite dramatic shifts in demand. 

For example, some patients have been stocking up on extra medication such as insulin, with a knock-on effect for manufacturers.  

At the same time, many elective surgeries have been put on hold, delaying the immediate need for the services of medtech companies or medical devices. This is expected to result in a surge in demand at a later date, once normal procedures resume.

On top of these changes to non-COVID-19-related medicine, there is obviously huge pressure on all areas related to tackling the coronavirus; possible vaccines or therapies, clinical trials and tracing apps.

Going forward, I think there is going to be a focus on the ability of firms to provide continuous, efficient and reliable operations, as well as their adaptability to scale up demand as and when needed. In fact, I believe it will become a differentiator.  

One approach is to build more agile supply networks consisting of suppliers that have a strong digital backbone and global presence. This means that if one supplier location drops out for any reason, another location (or several others) can ramp up production to ensure a continuous supply. Sensor-based technologies, robotics, and AI will be used much more to ensure timely deliveries of medicines.

But, more importantly, collaboration will extend beyond the traditional concept of supply chains to encompass entire partner ecosystems. 

Incorporating AI and tech more widely into existing models

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Another major change will be a significant expansion in the role of telemedicine.

We’ll see more remote patient engagement, such as people using digital home diagnostics and videoconferencing consultations with their doctors. Doing so may spare patients difficult journeys and allow doctors to spend more focused time with them. 

This will also expand to areas such as clinical trials. Today, these are still ‘high-touch’ activities: patients have to visit trial sites, doctors need to be there to treat them, and trial monitors visit to assess the site’s performance.  

Looking forward, much of this could be done remotely, with site monitors analyzing site performance data remotely using machine learning. 

There will be paradigm shift towards decentralized trials. Activities such as Patient recruitment and engagement will happen more virtually. In order to help pharma companies adapt to these changes, Tata Consultancy Services’ (TCS) Advanced Drug Development (ADD™) platform uses machine learning models for processes such as selection of clinical trial sites, risk-based monitoring of these sites and patient recruitment. 

We expect to see Business 4.0 characteristics such as Intelligent Analytics, Agile, Automation and Cloud transforming the life sciences in many other ways too, including workspace redesign, IT infrastructure and the reimagining of business processes across the value chain. And in order to safeguard the new ecosystems the sector will create, there will be a strong focus on cybersecurity. 

The life sciences could not have stayed afloat in the past few months, and made the progress we’ve seen, without the remarkable adoption of digital technology in the sector. Remote working, collaboration solutions, AI tools for epidemiology and cloud-based systems have all proved their worth. Technology has shown that it is crisis-proof and that it can help companies adapt flexibly to what’s being thrown at them. 

Changing workforce strategy

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Dealing with the pandemic has involved huge change, the widespread adaption of existing structures, and rapid decision making.

But the era of change is far from over, and organizations and people worldwide will need to continually reassess their response and re-evaluate best practises. This will require agility and adaptability, as well as a mentality that embraces continual learning. 

One of the areas of significant change could be how companies organize and engage with their workforce. The fear of changing the operating model is behind us. Most industries have had a significant percentage of their workforce operating from their homes without any major impact to operations. Human Resource functions such as hiring, and talent development will have to be redefined. HR teams and managers will have to think of how they create a sense of belonginess for the employees who will not spend a significant time in their traditional office premises. Leadership training content will have to be updated to address the new way of working with distributed and remote teams. Office real estate and how it is designed will also undergo a change.

While the coronavirus pandemic has put the world on pause, it has also provided a strong reason for companies to significantly accelerate their transformation journey − a journey that may have been more incremental under normal circumstances. 

The challenge now is to keep this momentum going, working together to support the corporate purpose, shore up resilience and boost agility to respond to changing market needs.