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Bold Advances in Healthcare

AI and other digital technologies are bringing extraordinary changes to the health care industry. Lidia Fonseca, Pfizer’s executive vice president and chief digital and technology officer, sat down with BCG’s Torben Danger to discuss the biopharma company’s digital transformation. They also discussed Pfizer’s strategies for attracting and training top digital talent, the company’s interest in the digital health opportunity, and its efforts to promote a diverse and inclusive workplace. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Torben Danger: You have played a key role in Pfizer’s digital transformation. What are some of the benefits you have seen from applying digital technologies across the value chain? 

Lidia Fonseca: We’re driving end-to-end innovation with three strategic priorities in mind: to improve patient health outcomes, to bring medicines to patients faster, and to fuel tomorrow’s breakthrough therapies. AI is playing a major role in these efforts.

It starts with research and discovery, where supercomputing capabilities with AI and machine learning are helping our scientists accelerate compounds through discovery to development. And our digital operations center provides an end-to-end view of manufacturing and supply. This allows the team to predict issues and adjust in real time, and has yielded 20% increase in throughput.

Why will digital and analytics be so important in the future, especially in the field of drug development?

In discovery, there will be a substantial number of AI-discovered molecules and indications entering clinical trials, and the growing application of quantum computing will drive speed in discovery and development in ways that we cannot imagine today.

In development, we will see accelerated use of digital technologies in clinical trials and optimization of trial protocol design using advanced predictive analytics. A substantial number of trials, I anticipate, will be run in a decentralized way to maximize convenience for patients.

The impact of digital technologies on drug development will truly be enormous, creating opportunities for all kinds of new players.

Absolutely. Transformation of the health care industry will continue to accelerate exponentially. AI companies will continue to proliferate, with new players that specialize in various areas including data generation, data aggregation, and advanced analytics as well as AI value generators that create algorithms. These new companies and business models will continue to disrupt the industry and drive innovation.

Digital health and medicine is a field that is clearly growing. What is your perspective on this opportunity?

We believe digital health and medicines can create broader value for patients in such areas as digital screening and diagnostics, digital interventions and monitoring, and digital biomarkers and endpoints. These have the potential to improve health outcomes by driving early diagnosis and treatment and boosting adherence to treatment. They also have the potential to address disease areas with high unmet need as well as comorbidities and side effects where digital can raise the standard of care. On our digital team, we have created a business unit to focus on this and bring products to market that can benefit patients around the globe.

Attracting top digital talent is top of mind for any C-suite executive. Given the current talent gap, a bold approach is required. What are you doing to ensure success in this area?

I am passionate about finding top digital talent to bring into our organization as well as growing and developing the great talent we have already here at Pfizer. To attract new talent to the company, we have a two-year rotational program for recent college graduates. This program exposes entry-level colleagues to different aspects of digital through four- to six-month rotations in a wide variety of disciplines. We also provide a variety of early career programs.

I regularly hold talent review sessions with my leadership team to identify strong, diverse talent and provide them with out-of-the-box opportunities to grow their skills and give them greater visibility. Much of our success in attracting and retaining top talent has been due to being science-driven and patient-focused.

You are passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion and especially about encouraging girls and women to enter STEM fields. What efforts have you been driving to close the gender gap in technology especially, and what bold moves do you think the industry should take in this field?

It’s critical to start early. So, as a sponsor of Pfizer’s partnership with Girls Who Code, I spend time with high school girls to open their minds to the positive impact they can have in the world through STEM careers. This program does a good job of reaching out to underrepresented communities, Latinas, and African American girls. When women are early in their careers, we need to provide robust opportunities for them to enter the field. And when women are in the field, it is critical to support their growth and development, providing mentorship opportunities so they can navigate their careers.

As leaders in digital, we have to be willing to open doors and mentor the next generation of tech professionals. Second, when we bring them into the field, we need to create an environment where they feel they belong and they can thrive. It’s not only about having diversity, but it’s also driving a culture of equity and inclusion. Without which, it creates a revolving door and talent won’t stay at your company.

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