"Digital transformation is the biggest opportunity to improve people's health"

Interview with Chantal Friebertshäuser, Chairman of the Management Board at MSD SHARP & DOHME GmbH
Photo Credit: obs/MSD SHARP & DOHME GmbH/Peter Rigaud

MSD SHARP & DOHME GmbH is a research-oriented pharmaceutical company and member of AmCham Germany that faces many challenges in keeping up with the speed of digital transformation. In an interview with AmCham Germany's magazine commerce germany, Chantal Friebertshäuser, Managing Director at MSD Germany speaks about how the healthcare system has changed due to digital transformation and how MSD adresses this changes.

Read more about digitalization of the healthcare sector in commerce germany

Mrs. Friebertshäuser, how has the healthcare system changed over the last years in the context of digital transformation?

Over the past decade new technologies and digitalisation have been shaping more and more aspects of life and business. This digital transformation already has a big impact on healthcare delivery and financing as well as on how players in our systems – insurers, physicians, pharmacists and companies – interact with patients in the world. Globally and especially in Germany, there is a general trend to outcome-focused care and increasing focus on personalisation, whilst ensuring affordability. We currently see a lot of opportunities surrounding the integration of information technology and digital analysis and management of patient health.

Can you describe the challenges that your company encounters with digital transformation?

Dx is the biggest opportunity to improve people’s health and increase efficiency in the healthcare system. We as a company are committed to playing an important part in this system, but also need to support ourselves by setting the political frame in the healthcare system. Another important challenge is keeping up with the speed of digital transformation. MSD is a large corporation with 69,000 [employees] worldwide in 140 countries, and of which 2,200 are based in Germany. One of our biggest tasks is the acceleration of our organisation and processes. We are aware that this demands a great deal of change on many levels.

How do you address this?

Putting customers first is our guiding principle and we empower our teams to get started on our journey to create a seamless experience that provides great service and support, no matter how customers interact with us. This requires strong commitment by all our people, thinking outside the box and learning from customer-centric companies. As an invention-oriented company we are open to innovation and new ways based on good communication standards and tangible results.

We are currently focusing on boosting our expertise at MSD and breaking down the silos we started working on last year with three skilled teams. In communications our teams explore various channels and networks, testing out alternatives to define which are most relevant in outcome. Social media has become an important part of our broad multi-channel strategy. This is especially true in industries like ours where we are faced with a lot of regulations and need to be bold in order to navigate social media successfully. A great example I like to share is our campaign “ENTSCHIEDEN. Gegen Krebs (Determined. Against cancer).” This multi-channel initiative which sees us teaming up with various partners aims to raise awareness about our fight against HPV (human papillomavirus), which can cause certain cancers.

In which fields/departments does your company already work with artificial intelligence?

Artificial Intelligence is a topic we are addressing company-wide. We are continuing to expand our AI capabilities across a variety of use cases, including in research, discovery, manufacturing, real world evidence and commercial optimisation as well as business intelligence.

Can you describe the challenges that your company encounters when implementing AI technology?

It’s much like any other company: AI must have ground truth in the underlying data, in the cleanliness of the data and in the interconnections between the data. Connectivity of data can help break silos for research and patient care. Our data has been built up over several years and we are actively investing in our legacy environments to ensure our foundations are set for the future. This needs time to build and learn for greater outcome in research and patient care.  And obviously it is our obligation to make sure data privacy is respected.

Beyond the data itself, we need to ask the right questions concerning the data, to gain the right insight. This is the transformational step. We are moving from a traditional sales and marketing focus to true commercial “discovery” in many regards, and we are upskilling our commercial organisation to actually be a form of data.

Finally, we need the right talent in our data science teams. The competition in this area is tough, but we believe that our purpose, our mission and our ability to make an impact on humanity and society through our medicines is the key differentiator and AI is one of the enablers.

How would you describe the e-Health market in Germany in comparison to the US market?

The digital healthcare sector in the US has in recent years evolved from lifestyle and wellness devices and applications to more complex approaches that can really help make healthcare more efficient and effective. We are confident that recent initiatives regarding e-health will provide a further boost towards a digital health industry in Germany too – like with the law that just passed allowing doctors to prescribe to digital apps with health benefits that can be reimbursed by the country’s health insurance system. So far, a lot of our potential to improve the quality and efficiency of our healthcare provisions remains untapped. Here, the increased application of electronic health records can, for instance, help to increase the size and variety of types of biomedical datasets used in drug development and testing.

A McKinsey study prepared in partnership with the German Managed Care Association (BMC) suggests that up to EUR 34.0 billion in potential value could have been realized in 2018 if the German healthcare system had been fully digitized. By digitizing the system, health services can realise big opportunities to increase patient outcome and efficiency.

How important are the transatlantic relations between Germany and the US in order to foster innovation in healthcare?

Continuously expanding the world’s largest trading relationship has contributed greatly to the strong economic state of Europe and the US today. In terms of access to innovative medicine, we wouldn’t be as advanced as we are today without strong transatlantic ties. The US is the strongest home for medical innovation today – the majority of the medical innovation that reached the market the past 2 years was originated in the US. Biomedical research is mostly about failure: only a few projects we commission will ultimately result in success. But every study we conduct adds to the body of knowledge that brings science and society closer to a solution. And, of course, science doesn’t stop at borders.

The US is a world leader in medical research and its market-based system promotes incentives for innovation. For our company it is home for manufacturing and R&D. As an important site for clinical research trials and a highly important European market, Germany is the main target for our clinical research and other development activities. Research and meaningful patient care improvement will only happen in collaboration cross boundaries with best science and focus on patient outcome.

In which political aspects do you see a need for action so that healthcare companies can remain successful in Germany?

Germany has a highly skilled, science-based workforce, which it needs to keep and continue to develop. We need to make sure that our people are equipped and prepared to adapt to change. Long-term needs rely on the quality of science and, thus, the scientists we can recruit. Our business is to go where science leads us and to use the tools that will best help us improve our knowledge about the human body and human biology.

Product development life cycles in our industry are very long, it typically takes us 10 to 12 years, on average, to bring a new drug to market. At the same time, our financial model is based on patents, which means we only have a couple of years to earn the money we need to finance our large-scale investments in research and development. Pharmaceutical companies like ours need to be smart and make sure we’re not borrowing value from the future. In order to do so, we need an innovation-friendly and predictable business environment that allows us to sustainably and profitably provide our innovative medicines and vaccines to as many people as possible – including in underserved regions of the world.

Why is it important for your company to be a member of AmCham Germany?

A strong transatlantic network is important on so many levels and, as I just mentioned, we at MSD experience it on a day-to-day basis in our professional and personal lives. AmCham provides a good forum to connect with other transatlanticists here in Germany and to find ways to further strengthen bonds across the Atlantic. This is particularly true in the healthcare sector, where we find partners to discuss regulatory issues, ways to improve the investment climate in Germany as well as research opportunities. Beyond our immediate area of business and on a more fundamental level, I’m grateful for AmCham’s role in nourishing a robust eco-system for transatlantic dialogue and understanding.

Thomas Henneberg

Manager, Head of Membership Engagement & Events