What is Digital Clinical?
I noticed this term used quite often in my conversations with customers, colleagues and industry analysts in the last couple of years. As is the case with many things in the past, the building blocks of “Digital Clinical” have been in the works for a long time now. At its core, in my opinion, it is all about various technology advances coming together to progress and enhance the clinical research. To name a few, the core technologies/developments include Mobility, Analytics, Social, Cloud Computing, Big Data, Semantic technologies. As mentioned while this is not a comprehensive list, it is a good start to understand how these are being leveraged to improve clinical research and the impact they are having on Heathcare & Life Sciences Industry, Patients and society at-large.
Areas of Focus:
The following are some of the focus areas across the R&D Value Chain being considered as Digital Clinical initiatives by various life sciences companies in the market space:
- Mobile Data Collection in clinical trials, patient reported outcomes and general quality of life data
- Data aggregation from Payer, Provider, Rx, Clinical and other Health Economic & Outcomes Research Data
- Ontology based repositories, Master data management, meta data repositories and text analytics
- Bio-Sensor and other wearable data capture, aggregation & analysis by leveraging cloud computing
- Mining of data from EHR/EMR, Social Media and other data sources
- Leverage OMOP, Sentinel and other such industry initiative outcomes to kick-start Real World Evidence/Real Life Evidence strategies
Business Use Cases being considered:
Some of the use cases being considered are:
- Site selection and Patient Recruitment
- Use wearable Bio-sensors in Clinical Trials
- Adverse Events in Social Media & Safety Surveillance
- Protocol Validation : Inclusion/Exclusion criteria assessment
I hope this gives a high level overview of what Digital Clinical means, some of the technologies influencing and enabling it and practical use cases being considered by the industry to leverage these technologies and provide better quality of life to patients.
It is amazing to see how fast things change, when right technology comes along, picks up the willfully reluctant “legacy” way of doing things and takes them on a ride of their life time. Not too long ago paper based clinical trials was the norm, and still is in some countries. Then came the electronic data capture systems and technology. While that is, people used eCRFs same way as they did paper CRFs. Slowly that started to change with data validation, edit checks etc.
With the cloud revolution came the thought of having clinical data capture/management systems on the cloud and be managed by a third party while pharma companies controlled the protocol and trial design as well as data transformation, analysis and submission management. Off late we are seeing companies being more open to store and share clinical trial data on the cloud. I think the days of ‘Clinical Platforms on The Cloud’ as the norm will soon be a reality. These platforms will not be limited to Clinical Trial Data but will host systems that provide end-to-end clinical research process support capabilities. Not only that, they will also stretch the boundaries further, by accommodating social media, mobile, big data & analytics capabilities.
Future of technology companies that are pioneers in enabling this transformation is going to be interesting and bright with ample opportunities to take the lead and leap to the next orbit.
Over the last 3 years, I have come across several initiatives from life sciences companies to revisit their Drug Safety system strategy, in line with the trend of evaluating their options with other IT systems, on whether they should continue to host and support these systems on-premise or move to cloud. We all have witnessed a major shift towards Cloud Computing and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model, Drug Safety is no exception. The challenge with this strategy is that it needs a dramatic shift in the traditional thinking that prevails in the industry in terms of people, process and technology. What I mean by that is:
- People should understand that once the system is hosted by an external partner, the way the business and IT teams within the sponsor organization interact with the support teams will change dramatically. For example, they may not be able to pick up the phone and call a Mr. John Doe at the last minute to get their product/license configured in the safety system to support the launch of a new study.
- Processes, both business and support, should be changed to reflect the new model and ensure seamless transition and steady state support to ensure the business operations are not impacted. For example, if you are engaging a new partner in a new market to support your clinical study you have to engage the service provider so you plan and support the onboarding process in time.
- Technology should be brought in to accommodate such change and ensure business continuity, system performance and transparency in service delivery. For example, tools should be made available to not only monitor the performance of the system and process but also to continually review and improve the performance.
You may argue that these are required for any transition from “On-Premise” model to “SaaS/Hosted” model. My answer would be YES, but the regulated clinical research world adds additional emphasis on getting it right the first time and ensuring that every aspect is validated and in compliance with the regulatory requirements of various agencies across the sponsors markets. I want to list some key items that would be useful to sponsors, in evaluating Drug Safety System hosting partners.
- Domain Expertise: The first and foremost criterion is “how much does the partner know about Drug Safety?” You cannot go to run-of-the-mill hosting partner and expect them to understand your business processes and host the system in compliance with the regulatory requirements
- Hosting Expertise: Have they hosted a safety system for any other customers? If not, have they hosted a system that requires validation and should comply with regulatory requirements? Will it be a “Multi-tenant” environment? If so, do they have experience facing audit for such a setup as my data may be hosted along with my competitors? How do they ensure Data Privacy and Security? Does their system support Single Sign On (SSO) or do my users need a separate login to access the system, which could be disruptive to business
- Hosting Location: Where are they hosting my data? Some countries do not allow safety data of patients to reside on foreign soil for obvious reasons. What arrangements do they have from a Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity perspective? How do they staff in case disaster strikes the main site? Do they move people or do they maintain minimal staff to support the secondary site?
- A-Team: Do they have the right people? If so, what are their qualifications? In my experience many sponsors look for references of the partner. That may not always be the right way to evaluate the partner because the staff that delivered the project for that referenced customer may not be with the organization anymore. Most service providers in drug safety space have small teams. Not all of them have bench strength to fully staff the engagement. However, it is critical that they have senior staff to seed the team and bring on additional staff as needed
- Processes: Do they have SOPs and WIs to get the new environment up and running faster but with little risk? Can they also provide case processing and aggregate reporting services? If so, what processes do they have in place? Do those processes meet our requirements? If not, how do we harmonize the processes?
- Total Cost of Ownership (TCO): It is essential that a decision of this criticality is financially viable too. Also, it is required to have a long term view of the cost associated with such a move. It is highly impractical to change your decision in short intervals of 1 to 2 years. You should be committed to a term of 3 to 5 years. If you are, then what is the total cost of ownership for such a commitment? Is the vendor transparent about all the hidden costs? If there would be increase in pricing, how predictable is it? Can we lock-in to a price now for 5 years? What discounts are offered? Can we tie in the payments to service performance? How about service credits?
- Viability: It is critical that the partner has a viable business model. Not just to fulfill your current needs, but your future needs as well. If you expand to new markets, would the partner have ability to support such a change? Do they have teams spread across multiple geographies?
- Cultural Fitment: You need a partner that fits, not just from a strategic and operational perspective but also from a cultural perspective. This arrangement is long term and both parties should look at it as a win-win proposition and should be committed to make it a success.
- Executive Commitment: Last but not least is the commitment the partner has to this business and more importantly to your service. What is their governance model? How does the escalation process work? Where is the executive team located? Are they a phone call away, if disaster strikes?
These are some of the aspects that I thought would be useful for some sponsors and vendors alike, to consider when selecting a partner for a drug safety hosted service. As always, appreciate your feedback and comments.
The story I am about to tell is almost 8 years old. I was managing software services delivery for a global pharmaceutical company from India. This was a very strategic account and the breadth of services covered diverse systems and geographies. It is very common that staff from the customer organization visit our delivery centers (offsite locations) to perform process audits, governance reviews and to meet people in their extended organizations.
During one such visit a senior executive noticed that two of my colleagues, sitting next to each other, supported their system (two different implementations of the same software) across two different geographies. They happened to have the name of the systems they support, pinned to a board at their desks. The executive wanted us to take a picture of the two cubicles and email to him. We were quite surprised at the request. Before moving on to speak to other people he asked a couple of questions and realized the guys were sharing each other’s experiences and leveraging the lessons learnt from one deployment for the other geography. It turned out that this does not happen in their organization, in fact their internal teams hardly communicate as they are part of different business units and geographies.
The story demonstrates how these organizations could become siloes due to distributed, outsourced and localized teams. Information Integration has become the way of life to connect numerous silos that are created in the process. Clinical research is a complex world. While the players are limited, depending on the size of the organization and the distributed nature of the teams (including third parties), information silos and with that the complexity of integration of data increases. The result is very long cycle times from data “Capture” to “Submission”.
Clinical Data Integration Challenges
The challenges in integrating the clinical data sources are many. I will try to highlight some of the key ones here:
- Study Data is Unique: depending on the complexity of the protocol, the design of the study, the data collected varies. This makes it difficult to create a standardized integration of data coming in from multiple sources.
- Semantic Context: while the data collected could be similar, unless the context is understood, it is very hard to integrate the data, meaningfully. Hence, the integration process becomes complex as the semantics become a major part of the integration process.
- Regulations and Compliance: Given the risks associated with clinical research, it is assumed that every phase of the data life should be auditable. This makes it very difficult to manage some of the integrations as it may involve complex transformations along the way.
- Disparate Systems: IT systems used by sponsors, CROs and other parties could be different. This calls for extensive integration exercise, leading to large projects and in turn huge budgets.
- Diverse Systems: IT systems used at each phase of the clinical data life cycle are different. This makes sense as the systems are usually meant to fulfill a specific business need. Even the functional organizations within a business unit will be organized to focus on a specific area of expertise. More often than not, these systems could be a combination of home grown and commercial off the shelf products from multiple vendors. Hence, the complexity of integrations increases.
What is Integration on the Cloud?
As mentioned earlier, integration is a complex process. As the cloud adoption increases, the data may be distributed across Public, Private (Includes On-Premise applications) and Hybrid clouds. The primary objective of integration on the cloud is to provide a software-as-a-service on the cloud to integrate diverse systems. This follows the same pattern as any other cloud services and delivers similar set of benefits as other cloud offerings.
The “Integration on Cloud” vendors typically offer three types of services:
- Out-of-Box Integrations: The vendor has pre-built some point-to-point integrations between some of the most used enterprise software systems in the market (like ERPs, CRMS etc.)
- Do-it-Yourself: The users have the freedom to design, build and operate their own integration process and orchestrations. The service provider may provide some professional services to support the users during the process.
- Managed Services: the vendor provides end-to-end development and support services
From a system design and architecture perspective, the vendors typically provide a web application to define the integration touch points and orchestrate the workflow that mimics a typical Extract-Transform-Load (ETL) process. It will have all the necessary plumbing required to ensure that the process defined is successfully executed.
Who are the players?
I thought it would be useful to look at some of the early movers in this space. The following is a list (not exhaustive and in no particular order, of course) of “Integration on Cloud” providers:
- Dell Boomi : Atom Sphere
- Informatica : Informatica CLOUD
- IBM : Cast Iron Cloud Integration
- Jitterbit : Enterprise Cloud Edition
These vendors have specific solution and service offerings. Most of them provide some out-of-the-box point-to-point integration of enterprise applications like ERPs, CRMs etc. They also offer custom integrations to accomplish data migration, data synchronization, data replication etc. One key aspect to look for is “Standards based Integration”. I will explain why that is important from a clinical data integration perspective later. While this offering is still in its infancy, there are some customers that use these services and some that are in the process of setting up some more.
Clinical Data Integration on Cloud
Many of you dealing with Clinical Data Integration may be wondering as to “Why bother with Integration on the Cloud?” while we have enough troubles in finding a viable solution in a much simpler environment. I have been either trying to create solutions and services to meet this requirement or trying to sell partner solutions to meet this requirement for the past 4 years. I will confess that it has been a challenge, not just for me but for the customers too. There are many reasons like, need to streamline the Clinical Data Life Cycle, Data Management Processes, retiring existing systems, bringing in new systems, organizational change etc. Not to mention the cost associated with it.
So, why do we need integration on the cloud? I firmly believe that if a solution provides the features and benefits listed below, the customers will be more than willing to give it a strong consideration (“If you build it, they will come”). As with all useful ideas in the past, this too will be adopted. So, what are the features that would make Clinical Data Integration on the cloud palatable? The following are a few, but key ones:
- Configurable: Uniqueness of the studies makes every new data set coming in from partners unique. The semantics is also one of the key to integration. Hence, a system that makes it easier to configure the integrations, for literally every study, will be required.
- Standards: The key to solving integration problems (across systems or organizations), is reliance on standards. The standards proposed, and widely accepted by the industry (by bodies like CDISC, HL7 etc.) will reduce the complexity. Hence, the messaging across the touch points for integration on the cloud should rely heavily on standards.
- Regulatory Compliance and GCP: As highlighted earlier, Clinical Research is a highly regulated environment. Hence, compliance with regulations like 21 CFR Part 11 as well as adherence to Good Clinical Practices is a mandatory requirement.
- Authentication and Information Security: This would be one of key concerns from all the parties involved. Any compromise on this would not only mean loss of billions of dollars but also adverse impact on patients that could potentially benefit from the product being developed. Even PII data could be compromised, which will not be unacceptable
- Cost: Given the economically lean period for the pharma industry due to patent expiries and macro-economic situation, this would be a key factor in the decision making process. While the cloud service will inherently convert CapEx to OpEx and thus makes it more predictable, there will be pressure to keep the costs low for add-on services like “new study data” integration.
All in all, I would say that it is possible, technically and economically and also a step in the right direction to overcome some existing challenges. Will it happen tomorrow or in the next 1 year? My answer would be NO. In 2 to 3 years, probably YES. The key to making it happen is to try it on the cloud rather than on-premise. Some of the vendors offering Integration on Cloud could be made partners and solve this age old problem.
Update on 03/27/2012:
This post has been picked up by “Applied Clinical Trials Online” Magazine and posted on their blog -> here