Smita Mukherjee, GR’09, WG’18, received her Ph.D. in biophysical chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009, and spent the past 10-plus years in the healthcare industry. Previously, a Senior Product Manager at Novartis Oncology, she is currently an Associate Director in Marketing at Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS). She shared her personal views on innovation during this pandemic.
How have you seen innovation and adaptation take place in the healthcare industry during the COVID-19 crisis?
COVID-19 has led to significant innovations and adaptations in the healthcare industry in the past few months. New ideas are being generated in the healthcare space continuously to tackle the COVID-19 crisis at a global scale. So this list is not exhaustive but a snapshot of what is happening as we speak:
- Telehealth: Consultations are provided via video or phone calls for certain specialties and disease states, and the usage of telehealth platforms has increased. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted the $200 million COVID-19 Telehealth Program, as appropriated by the CARES Act, which will assist healthcare professionals to provide telehealth services to patients at their homes or mobile locations.
- Remote patient monitoring: Remote healthcare monitoring and patient compliance platforms provide convenient and continuous healthcare for patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes, and usage has increased. For example, the FDA has recently given Livongo Health emergency use authorization (EUA), which allows hospitals to use Livongo’s technology to remotely monitor patients’ blood glucose levels and provide medical care, while reducing in-person interactions. EUA allows products to be used before they have gone through the formal FDA approval process.
- Digital therapeutics: Therapeutic interventions are delivered directly to patients through evidence-based, clinically evaluated software that treats, manages and prevents a broad spectrum of behavioral, mental and physical diseases and disorders. These are seeing increased usage as they can sometimes fill the void left by the lack of healthcare interactions during this pandemic. To date, the FDA has cleared seven digital therapeutics companies that are part of the Digital Therapeutics Alliance that have been shown to improve patient outcomes.
- Decentralized clinical trials: Unlike traditional clinical trials, decentralized trials are conducted remotely, with the participant remaining at home and contacted via telemedicine and mobile or local healthcare providers. The COVID-19 pandemic has renewed interest in rapid implementation of remote healthcare delivery mechanisms, which can enable clinical trials to continue.
- Usage of real-world data: The FDA and Aetion, Inc. have entered a research collaboration to focus on the assessment and analysis of real-world datasets to generate critical insights regarding the natural history, treatment and diagnostic patterns of COVID-19. This allows us to quickly learn from patients currently receiving care so that we can apply those insights.
- Shift in pharma’s commercial model: Due to the social distancing measures implemented to contain the spread of COVID-19, there has been a drastic reduction in traditional in-person visits by field representatives and clinical nurse consultants. This has prompted pharmaceutical companies to rely more on digital channels; email newsletters; and online requests for representative contacts to disseminate information about products, disease states and patient support resources. Drug manufacturers are relying on advanced analytics and machine learning techniques to figure out how to thoughtfully engage during this sensitive period with the right audience at the right time, through the right channel, with the right content.
- Prescription savings for uninsured patients: Express Scripts launched Parachute Rx to offer deep discounts on thousands of generic and brand-name drugs to any American who lost insurance due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Virtual conferences: Scientific conferences are moving to a virtual format where healthcare professionals, life science companies and other stakeholders can interact and network virtually. They can present data through lectures, posters and exhibits and earn continuing medical education credits.
Some say that the COVID-19 response for innovation shows what private enterprises and the government can do when they are both highly focused on a common goal. Are there examples of this partnership compressing time?
Yes, there are many examples to illustrate this phenomenon during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Gates Foundation, Wellcome Trust and Mastercard launched the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, where 15 pharma companies have agreed to share their proprietary libraries of molecular compounds for potential use against COVID-19. Once a compound provides initial positive results, it would move quickly into in vivo trials in a few months instead of years. Pharma companies that are part of this historic collaboration include Bayer, Becton and Dickinson (BD), bioMérieux, Boehringer Ingelheim, Bristol Myers Squibb, Eisai, Eli Lilly, Gilead, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Merck (known as MSD outside the U.S. and Canada), Merck KGaA, Novartis, Pfizer, and Sanofi.
The FDA has granted “fast track” designation for Moderna’s mRNA vaccine candidate (mRNA-1273) against the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). Such “fast track” designations lead to early and frequent communication between the FDA and a drug company so that questions and issues are resolved quickly, which could potentially lead to earlier drug approval and access by patients.
Moreover, Pfizer has partnered with BioNTech SE to move the vaccine candidate BNT162 in less than four months from preclinical studies to human testing. This short timeline is unprecedented, and the two companies are working to scale up production for global supply in the anticipation that the clinical development will be successful.
Similarly, the AAVCOVID Vaccine Program from Mass. Eye and Ear and Mass General has entered into a manufacturing agreement with gene therapy leader AveXis, a Novartis company, to use its technology, expertise and supply chain at no cost to supply the AAV vaccine for COVID-19 clinical trials estimated to begin in the latter half of 2020.
This incredible level of innovation has always fueled my desire to be part of the healthcare industry. I believe, through the collaborative efforts of private enterprises, healthcare facilities, and regulatory bodies, we will be able to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and make a positive impact on the lives of the patients we serve.
In 2016, you returned to Penn to study for your MBA at Wharton. What did you hope to learn, and what did you gain?
I am passionate about the healthcare field and majored in healthcare management (HCM), marketing and entrepreneurship. I want to build my career at the intersection of science and business, where I am able to serve the needs of patients. I could learn the tools and skills for running successful businesses through training in leadership, negotiation, marketing, finance, operations and strategy, among others. Wharton provided a fertile ground through interactions with my peers and faculty.
One of the hallmarks of a Wharton MBA is the training to make data-backed decisions. During my MBA, I have further honed my analytical thinking, which has become second nature to me for making any decision at work. I will always be grateful to Penn for giving me the opportunity to meet so many wonderful people during my Ph.D. and MBA programs who have become friends, mentors and advisors for life.