From The Editor | April 9, 2020

Data Intelligence And Biopharma's COVID-19 Responsibility


By Matthew Pillar, Editor, BioProcess Online


For the past two months, the world outside of this industry has been laser-focused on its attempts to speed its way to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. Those dozens of biopharma firms large and small that have turned their development programs on their ears, reallocating huge resources to explore their molecules’ potential in the war on this pandemic, have garnered the lion’s share of the limelight du jour. And while that’s honorable, it should in no way minimize the work that thousands of other biopharma companies are doing to prevent, treat, and cure the underlying conditions that are putting so many millions at risk as this virus ebbs and flows its way around the globe.

Understanding the virus’ spread and the impact of that underlying conditions risk at a very granular level—and discovering how the life sciences industry can extrapolate value from that understanding—is a mission that Susan Willman is both passionate about and well-equipped to manage. Willman is general manager of Life Sciences and Pharmacy Services at EXL. Her data analytics company has historically supported the operations capacity of payors, providers, pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs), and integrated health systems.

Of late, she’s been focused on leveraging data to help the payor, provider, and pharma industries understand their roles identifying at-risk COVID-19 patients. More specifically, she’s helping pharma understand how data reveals the industry’s responsibility to the battle we face, how social determinants of health can help biopharma firms run more efficient trials, and, ultimately, improve the last mile of the therapeutic supply chain by ensuring the right therapies are administered the right way and to the right patients in need.

It’s a role Willman has effectively trained for over a 27-year career beginning as a pharmacist before transitioning to a PBM and, ultimately, medication compliance using consumer modeling analytics. This was her bailiwick in positions at Medtronic, where she worked on the company’s first home monitoring solutions for cardiac patients, and Optum Health, where she honed her data analytics chops working on population health programs. Now, she’s putting her patient-centric and data analytics skills to work identifying very specific patient populations that can benefit from therapeutic programs, and measuring the impact of those programs. It’s a skill set that’s in demand as COVID-19 hotspots continue to flare up in some otherwise unexpected places.

Putting Data To Work For Life Sciences

Through the work it does with payors and providers, EXL Services has created a dynamic aggregate of data that represents the U.S. patient population. That’s where we begin to see value for the biopharma industry, and it’s where we begin to define its role in the COVID-19 battle. “Through the near-real-time patient population data model we created, we can put forward the factors that identify the risk of exacerbating complications in geographic-specific COVID-19 outbreaks,” explains Willman. “Much of the COVID-related data has been identified publicly, but what's unique is our ability to layer in those underlying health condition factors, as well as social determinant of health factors, to forecast where the emerging risk will be,” she says. That data can help the health care system get ahead of the virus from a planning perspective, so it can proactively address the underlying health condition risk factors—conditions like diabetes, asthma, cancer, COPD, and so on—that affect specific communities.

“When we apply our unique social determinants of health lens to the picture, we can begin to address health disparities and how demographics and socioeconomic factors contribute to risk,” explains Willman. “Beyond the specific underlying conditions we can identify within a community, we can assess their access to transportation, their access to healthy food, the medications they’re taking, their adherence to those medicines, and the efficacies of those treatments.”  Using this data to identify risk based on clinical, health, and socioeconomic factors can help determine the ability of communities and even individuals to weather the viral storm. “Our initial intent was to create awareness of the virus and help payors and providers make informed business decisions,” she says, “but we’ve also uncovered value for the pharma companies that are developing treatments and vaccines for both COVID-19 and the underlying health conditions that complicate treatment for those affected by the virus.”

Putting The Biopharma Community To Work

The specialized nature of biopharma has put the industry in a uniquely patient-centric position relative to traditional pharma. The development and commercialization of biologic therapies and personalized medicine, from plasma to mAbs to cell and gene therapies to vaccines, has forced close involvement with the healthcare industry and pushed the industry much closer to the patient. That, coupled with the speed at which promising new biologic therapies are making their way to the clinic and beyond, has created a newfound responsibility to play a role in the awareness of what treatments are available, and to whom. “With social determinant of health data in hand, biopharma firms should be using their platforms to continue to increase the knowledge and awareness around emerging risks of underlying conditions. They’re also in a strong position to encourage therapy adherence to help patients stay compliant with patient support programs in an effort to keep people healthy from an underlying conditions perspective,” she says. “Our data illustrates the importance of therapy adherence. When patients manage their diabetes, asthma, COPD, hypertension, etc. well, they’re potentially less likely to become compromised from a virus like this.” That’s why, she says, commercial-stage biopharma firms should be using their marketing and communications platforms and patient support programs to support medication and therapy adherence, because it’s critically important to a healthcare system that’s already working beyond capacity.

Social Determinants Of Health And The Biopharma Supply Chain

In a commercial world, consumer demographic and socioeconomic data is everything. Retail and finance markets, in particular, go to great lengths and expense to leverage consumer behavior in their attempts to fine-tune everything from pricing to marketing to, importantly, supply chain and distribution.

Similarly, says Willman, there’s value in understanding emerging risk areas from a clinical perspective for supply and distribution. Applying the tenets of consumer behavior to life sciences might, in some cases, be as simple as replacing ‘buying habits’ with ‘therapy habits.’  “Identifying what we’re seeing from provider and patient behaviors around the prescription and consumption of medications, the duration of therapy, disruptions of administration, and the addition of other drugs can benefit the life sciences space. It can help them gain real world insight into how the general population might be using a similar therapy,” she says. Social determinants of health data are also valuable to pre-clinical and clinical-stage biopharma firms. It can play an instrumental role in matching patient populations with clinical trials and helping therapy developers understand those aforementioned socioeconomic risk factors that could jeopardize the integrity of in-human studies. “This is very important given the expense often associated with biologic therapies and personalized medicines. If you can’t ensure therapies are administered in an optimally effective way, things start falling apart,” says Willman.

While the value of data analytics in patient populations isn’t lost in any context, it’s especially important in the throes of the COVID-19 battle. As the FDA matches pace with industry in the footrace to the development of a vaccine, and as new treatment promise emerges from the biologics community on a daily basis, understanding where the virus is hitting—and importantly, who it’s putting at most risk due to underlying health conditions and social determinant of health factors—is of paramount importance to the life science community that’s working 24/7 to flatten the curve and preserve life.

See EXL Services’ IDENTIFY EMERGING COVID-19 RISK HOT SPOTS infographic for more insight into how data analytics can help biopharma do its part to protect the patient community.