How the pharmaceutical industry wound up working for Google

Sadly, Big Pharma never learned about not offering apples to the giant grizzly

The challenge that many of us face, being employed in a knowledge-based business sector such as Life Sciences, is that we are expected to be knowledgeable.

Which we are — to a fair degree, within compartmentalized confines.

Right now, in each separate Life Sciences silo, everything appears on the surface to be just tickety-boo. The PhDs have a firm grasp of molecular biology protocols; the MBAs thoroughly understand the art of achieving mind-share and moving product; the formulary doyens comprehend payers and their Byzantine processes; our field forces know everything about how to detail KOLs; HR is on top of the latest local OHS regs and benefits options; the support teams always know how to keep things humming.

We’re accustomed to being experts in narrow endeavors. Then again, there is the larger environment, which no one could possibly understand. Who might actually fathom how all those continually reshaped pieces of our organization are intended to fit together, or how the assembled final design is supposed to look? And what, while we’re at it, is the phrase “knowledge-based company” supposed to mean, in 2011?

Who knows.

So, where do we look, when seeking the big picture for Big Pharma? The first stop on our quest for knowledge might be a quick web expedition, using Google’s search engine.

Out around Jasper, Alberta, there is a parallel for engaging in that kind of activity. It’s known as handing a donut to that warm-and-fuzzy mountain lion when he playfully approaches your picnic table — and remaining oblivious to the truth that what the big cat really has an appetite for is your tender, fleshy arm.

Get the comparison? All this time, Google seemed so benign and non-threatening, so quick to give us something for nothing: first, web searches, then, collaboration and scheduling tools, and YouTube, always something useful and innovative. That certainly was nice of those nerds, we thought, as we created a vague mental image of some munificent California-based hippie-manqués, out doing their own Utopian thing for us pharmaceutical professionals to dig.

But, to quote George Bush, we may have misunderestimated Google’s intentions. That “thing” they were doing, by all rights, should have been our thing — while what we thought we were digging turned out to be our industry’s burial plot.

Take the huge opportunity of establishing personal health records (PHRs) in electronic format — which they did, with stealth. There was no reason for Big Pharma to pay much attention in 2008, when Google initiated a pilot project with the Cleveland Clinic to put PHRs online: Good luck, you nerds, and be sure to let us know how it all works out.

Likewise, when the resulting product had a successful worldwide launch the following year, our focus was on other concerns. Around the same time, when another venture closely allied with Google, known as 23andme.com, began offering a personal genome-scanning service to the public, we shook our heads and wondered what those strange hippies thought they were doing. They dropped a hint, suggesting their aim was to “empower individuals and develop new ways of accelerating research.” We shrugged.

Now, at the very tail-end of 2010, here come those darned hippie-nerds again, and now it’s time we opened our eyes. They’ve just created another neat novelty item, called Body Browser. If you’ve seen Google Earth, you’re familiar with the technology. It’s used to peer at the whole of our planet from satellites, which then enable an expanded vision that pinpoints the neighbor’s dog chasing a squirrel in your own backyard. Body Browser accomplishes the equivalent with human anatomy. The Google engineers and programmers have enabled access by health professionals, patients, payers, and researchers to a revealing study of the workings of the human body, in an intricate manner previously available only to elite medical researchers.

But it’s much more than a cool gimmick, of course. It’s the earliest appearance of what is bound to become the standard interface that the entire world will routinely use to regard and comprehend their physical state. (Suppliers have already developed systems whereby a Body Browser-like interface is used by doctors to initiate patient interviews, order diagnostic and therapeutic instructions, arrange referrals and follow-up scheduling, as well as facilitate billing.)

So, where does that leave us, as narrow experts employed in the Life Sciences? Let’s see. Google now maintains the personal health records for millions of patients. Their associated company has already decoded the DNA of tens of thousands of subjects, and they retain this priceless data on their servers. 23andme.com cheerfully confesses to conducting research into more than 100 diseases, at current count. They have just introduced retail versions of their test-kits to the shelves of Walgreen’s pharmacies, a radical move that is bound to open up vast new troves of genomic intelligence.

And now Google has capped it all, by establishing an interface that will make anatomy understandable and relatable to billions of the world’s inhabitants. By our reckoning, this would seem to qualify this group as the preeminent global repository of disease data, the nexus of international genomics research, and the recognized brand when it comes to the health of families and individuals. While we would prefer that it had been our company that achieved this status, we concede it’s an impressive feat for an organization that has been active in the healthcare space for about five years.

All of which leaves Big Pharma with an inconvenient question. Can we continue to insist that we’re a knowledge-based enterprise, when someone else knows more about our mission than we do — and they co-incidentally happen to control the accumulation and delivery of that knowledge to each of our constituencies?

When you think about it, if Google’s unlimited access to health intelligence is applied to the “open source” collaborative research approach to scientific development that some academics are championing, Big Pharma may become something less than spectators at an event we can’t entirely comprehend.

Our assets: All those absurdly expensive and inefficient clinical trials with small numbers of subjects. The eternal quest for blockbusters. Don’t they count for anything in Google’s world? Could it be that what we prized was all just… busy-work?

This is not to say that Big Pharma will not have a role to play in the new order, but it seems destined to be a role we aren’t going to like very much. We’ll be the slow-moving guys in the baggy suits, at the tired old drug company across town, the sad-sacks who plead for lunch appointments with those elusive Google executives, who, for their part, never see the purpose of meeting with representatives of a “legacy” industry. With luck, there might be some bits of evidence retained somewhere, possibly on a Google server, to remind the world that Big Pharma used to be considered a knowledge-based business, known for audacity, right up to the point where someone else gathered a bigger chunk of the knowledge and kept it for themselves.

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2 thoughts on “How the pharmaceutical industry wound up working for Google

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