Life Science and Pharmaceutical Industry

Sustainability in the healthcare sector – the power of data

In this blog post, we discuss how data can boost sustainability, and why it’s important for companies to open up to the world.

8 minutes to read
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For better or worse, data offers enormous potential.

As we see it, there are three ways in which data can help boost sustainability in the healthcare sector: 

  1. Data can help improve the overall quality of healthcare provision. The possibilities here are so far-reaching that the idea of preventing illness altogether is starting to feel more and more realistic. This would be the most sustainable strategy and would make a direct contribution to meeting a number of sustainability goals. The problem is that, at the moment, there is little economic incentive for businesses to work on this approach.  

  2. Data can be used to make products and the production process more sustainable. The potential synergies are many – which is why for many companies this is likely to be the most appealing approach.  

  3. Data can help you to be more agile in matching your manufacturing to market requirements, thereby avoiding problems such as overproduction.   

1. How data can improve healthcare 

When it comes to outlining a vision for the future for healthcare, there’s no getting away from the ‘four Ps’ – participatory, precision, personalised and preventive. Every single one of these 'P's is relevant in terms of sustainability – and every single one requires data.  

  1. Participatory: Health care will evolve to encourage people to participate much more actively in their own healthcare. We’re seeing initial moves in this direction already, with apps and wearables helping increasing numbers of people to take a more active interest in their health, helping them to reduce their risk for conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. These advances are built on algorithms that enable apps to make appropriate behavioural recommendations.  

  2. Precision: The era of blockbuster drugs for common diseases suitable for almost every patient is drawing to a close. The future will be about precisely tailoring treatments and drugs to the individual patient. This will improve treatment outcomes and reduce potential side effects, but developing these therapies requires large amounts of data.  

  3. Personalised: Personalised medicine is precision taken to the next level, and it’s already becoming a reality. Novartis’ Kymriah gene therapy treatment for leukaemia is precisely tailored to the individual patient. It has a high success rate, but is very expensive, with each treatment costing a six-figure sum. Less extreme examples include individual dietary recommendations and individually tailored treatments. Data and automated data processing are essential for scaling up these applications so that they don’t just benefit a small, wealthy minority.  

  4. Preventive: The most radical of the 4 ‘P’s. The aim here is to use algorithms and specific biomarkers to identify disease before it strikes. In order to develop effective algorithms, this approach too requires large volumes of data. Right now, however, it’s just not possible to make this kind of approach turn a profit. Legislative action to create incentives would help, but businesses also need to get creative and perhaps look at alternative approaches to monetisation – by working with health insurers, for example.  

But how do you get hold of the data?  

The pharmaceutical sector in particular is already working hard on putting the 4 ‘P’s into action in one form or another. One of the biggest challenges is getting hold of the necessary data. Health data is subject to strict regulations – and for good reason. Sharing your data with pharmaceutical companies requires trust in those companies – something which many patients do not have.  

Of course there are no such limitations on using data from your own manufacturing, or on using your own product usage data (as long as it's collected in anonymised form). This presents businesses with some interesting opportunities – particular as it’s not just sustainability that these data can be used to enhance.  

2. Using data to create sustainable products and processes 

For medical device manufacturers in particular, using data to make products more sustainable seems like an easy win. Many medical devices are already, indeed have long been, connected to the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT). The data generated by these devices can deliver useful information on how they are being used. If, for example, your usage data shows that your device spends a great deal of time doing nothing, then it makes sense to work on reducing power consumption in standby mode. By using digital twins, it’s also possible to improve take-back, repair, re-use, lifespan and energy consumption for these devices.  

Usage data can provide an important foundation for sustainability engineering (see our blog post "Making products and manufacturing more sustainable"). In addition, usage data can also help you realise completely new business models. A few examples: 

  • Devices that are used for a limited period at home during a treatment could be designed as rental equipment and be leased from the manufacturer. This kind of model invites partnerships with health insurers.  

  • For heavily used hospital equipment, manufacturers might choose to offer a pay-per-use option. This would enable older devices to be more quickly replaced with newer, energy-saving models. For manufacturers, there are additional benefits, the obvious example being a continuous stream of income over the lifetime of the device.  

  • Usage data can also be used to realise novel treatment outcome-based business models. For health insurers in particular, outcome-based payment models are likely to be highly appealing, giving rise to some potentially interesting partnership opportunities for device manufacturers.   


The Industrial Internet of Things 

A further source of data with lots of potential for boosting sustainability is manufacturing data. Many items of manufacturing equipment are already part of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), so manufacturers already have access to a useful pool of data. Key objectives include minimising defect rates and optimising raw material and energy use.  

Particularly promising approaches include: 

  1. Analysing available data relating to defective batches, etc. By using data analytics, it is often possible to identify and mitigate relevant correlating factors. This can significantly reduce the defect rate.  

  2. Another option for reducing the defect rate is predictive maintenance. This enables manufacturers to predict machinery failure in advance and take appropriate action. This in turn reduces the defect rate and more importantly the amount of downtime.  

  3. Manufacturing data can be used to reduce raw material and energy consumption. It might, for example, be cheaper to perform more energy-intensive processes at night when electricity prices are lower, or alternatively on sunnier days when rooftop solar panels are producing lots of electricity.  

3. Using market data to reduce resource consumption 

A third way in which data can be used to boost sustainability is the use of market data to optimise your production and strategy. Demand forecasting, for example, can produce relatively precise estimates of future demand, enabling manufacturers to avoid overproduction. Other potential benefits include cost savings and possible competitive advantages.  

Analysing market data can also help you better understand how your products are used, enabling you to channel your development accordingly. Here’s a relatively straightforward example: a medical device manufacturer manufactures a device which makes most of its sales in Southeast Asia. Based on this insight, it is able to design its product to be less cold-resistant, but better able to operate at high temperatures. The result is increased customer satisfaction and fewer device failures due to high temperatures.  

One of the big advantages of market data is that it is generally relatively easy to get hold of. You don’t have to network your devices, often this data is already sitting in your ERP or CRM system. Applied consistently, the primary benefits this approach offers manufacturers are a competitive advantage and cost savings – but with the happy side effect of potentially boosting sustainability.   

Partnerships and an ecosystem can be key success drivers 

For companies aiming to make really effective use of data or who want to evolve in the direction of a circular economy, there’s one factor the importance of which can’t be overstated. They have to be prepared to look outwards and enter into partnerships with outside entities. Many different combinations are possible: 

  • pharmaceutical/medical technology companies partnering with health insurers to offer preventive health services 

  • pharmaceutical/medical technology companies working together on combined therapies 

  • pharmaceutical/medical technology companies working with large tech enterprises to develop data-driven solutions 

  • medical technology companies partnering with health insurers to lease out equipment or agree outcome-based payment models  

  • medical technology companies forming networks with other manufacturers as part of a circular economy ecosystem 

  • improved access to up-to-date supplier sustainability data, enabling you to optimise the environmental footprint of your products 

A further area for potential partnership is the sharing of ideas for enhancing sustainability. Sustainability is one area where competition between companies plays much less of a role – sustainability is not a zero sum game. On the contrary, companies can rarely become sustainable on their own – it requires collaboration with partner companies within the relevant ecosystem. And, when other companies become more sustainable, we all benefit. That’s why Zühlke has initiated a Sustainability Circle, where businesses and experts share their thoughts and ideas on sustainability.  

Becoming a data-driven company 

The most effective use of data in company strategy, product development and manufacturing happens when a business has resolutely pursued the objective of becoming a data-driven company. To ensure that data is genuinely used to enhance sustainability – not just for efficiency gains – you need an integrated sustainability vision (see also our blogpost on "Three reasons medtech and pharma need a sustainability vision in 2023"). A company can gain further traction by broadening its thinking beyond the confines of the company itself – and, for example, getting involved in data ecosystems with other organisations.  

Learn how to make healthcare products and production more sustainable in Part 4 of this blog post series.

Other insights in our blogpost series "Sustainability in the Health-ecosystem":

Contact person for Germany

Aud Frese

Senior Business Development Managerin

Aud Frese is Senior Business Development Manager and Market Team Leader – Medical Technology & Healthcare Industry in the Zühlke Group. Her focus is on digital innovation, business strategies and product development. Aud Frese has a degree in Medical Informatics and has many years of experience in medical technology and the health sector.

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