In March 2020, Dr Vijay Prabhakar was working on a telemedicine project that would allow patients to take part in clinical trials without stepping out of their front door. Then Covid-19 hit. The medical community had to change the way it treated patients – and quickly. Suddenly, his standalone study became a day-to-day necessity.
“I was the interim Head of Global Clinical Operations at the time – then the pandemic changed everything. Clinical research had to be de-prioritised, and sites closed down.” Vijay and his team reacted. “We went to the doctors and said, look, we’ve found a way of delivering clinical trials that will cause minimal disruption to the healthcare system and enable patients to continue taking their medication.”
Overnight, Vijay and his team started rolling out the telemedicine project. The term, first used in the 1970s, literally means “healing at a distance” – something that was desperately needed at the time. Today, it’s become a regular way of working.
“It was necessary in order to maintain continuity for patients receiving drug treatments, but we were already working on it before Covid,” says Vijay. “We just had a massive advantage in that we had built the tech so we could leverage it when we needed it most.”
The big surprise
But while the doctors welcomed this new way of working, the big question for Vijay was how would the patients react? “That was the biggest surprise for me – the patients liked it. Across all ages, even people who weren’t very tech savvy were happy to try it.”
One of the reasons perhaps was that he and his team didn’t make any assumptions around patients’ needs. “People often assume that every patient has a nice smartphone, but that's not true. We needed to give them options: I knew that was the only way to be successful.” Today some use their laptops, others use phones – and large numbers engage.
“That was the biggest surprise for me – the patients liked it.”
The biggest blocker actually wasn’t the patients at all – it was compliance. “Because the pharmaceutical industry is highly regulated there are many ethical issues involved. We’re conducting studies in more than 45 countries, so that means checking each and every nation's regulations. That was the biggest challenge that we faced.”
Looking across the medical community
Telemedicine was a hit with doctors running trials with Boehringer Ingelheim, but Vijay knew this wasn’t enough. They had to share the knowledge. “We proactively reached out to TransCelerate, which is a common industry body for pharmaceutical companies, and to our partners in the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries Association, so they could learn about what we were doing.”
“We knew if we opened it up to other companies, we could all work together and make sure the industry was doing things consistently. This, in turn, would make things easier for doctors, as they would only have to learn about one piece of tech instead of 30 different variations of the same program.”
“We knew if we shared our learnings, we could make sure the industry was doing things consistently and make things easier for doctors”
Vijay thinks the reason he and his team got there first was because Boehringer Ingelheim is a privately held company. “We plan in the long term and explore new technologies and approaches early on, teaming up with leading innovators globally, while always keeping in mind our end goal of creating value for patients. That’s why we were ready to go when the pandemic struck. With this unity, empowerment, and communication we were able to manage quite well.”
Looking forward, he believes that telemedicine will become the new normal – but it shouldn’t be pushed too hard on patients. “We want to give them choices. These will go hand-in-hand with other decentralised options, like sending medication to people’s homes and removing the need to meet face-to-face to set up and run a trial.”
Because ultimately, that’s what it all comes down to – the patients. It’s what kept Vijay and his team working day and night to get telemedicine accepted. “We knew we were making a big difference to so many patients' lives. And that’s what keeps us moving.”
Please note that this content is intended for HCPs only and was developed to illustrate the nature of daily work at Boehringer Ingelheim