Enter AI: How Technology is Changing the Pharmaceutical Industry for the Better


The pharmaceutical industry is already seeing the immense benefit of AI and machine-learning technology.

It’s nearly impossible to discuss the future of any industry without mentioning artificial intelligence (AI). Whether it’s retail, manufacturing, or the health care industry at large, the discussion around the benefits continues.

But for every conversation that focuses on the benefit of AI technology in health care, there is a debate about the potential drawbacks, the most common being that AI is going to replace jobs. However, in many cases, AI is not replacing human involvement. Instead, it positions employees for success by freeing them up from what are often tedious, repetitive tasks to allow them to focus on patient safety, staff protection, and other clinical-oriented efforts.

The pharmaceutical industry, in particular, is already seeing the immense benefit of AI and machine-learning technology. Pharma is currently facing challenges that affect providers, payers, and most importantly, patients.

Some of the most widely discussed issues include drug shortages, drug recalls, and the opioid epidemic, all within the challenges of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Although these issues seem grim and vast, AI is strategically positioned to help us better address all 3.

Drug Shortages

Drug shortages, or a lack of available therapies and medications to meet demand, typically occur due to obstacles such as manufacturing issues or regulatory delays. They can also occur during widespread crisis situations, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, in which drugs like penicillin, aspirin, and ibuprofen are unable to be safely made and transported to the United States.

AI is aiding in addressing drug shortages by examining mass amounts of data on current medications and their applications, and then actually predicting how they can be coupled in new ways to create effective treatments.

This could potentially address drug shortages by expanding the medications that are available and proven to treat a specific disease. The automation of this task is a major relief to researchers in the pharma industry, and it’s helping us get to life-sustaining—or even lifesaving—therapies more quickly.

Also, AI shows promise when it comes to general insights into every facet of the supply chain. It can help analyze trends in inventory management from manufacturer to patient use, which can help predict drug shortages before they happen.

Drug Recalls

Drug recalls occur when a medication in the supply chain is contaminated or compromised, making the output medication unsafe for prescribing. Drug recalls are another major pain point for the pharma industry and can have very serious consequences for providers and patients.

Medications are recalled to protect patients from contamination or adverse effects, but patients may need that medication survive, leaving providers in very tough situations. Through the use of AI, we have the potential to pinpoint exactly where any contamination or defect originated in the supply chain, allowing teams to correct or work around the issue more efficiently than would be possible using manual research-based processes.

With AI-enabled item level visibility software solutions, the pharmaceutical supply chain can track every vial and syringe from manufacturer to patient, ensuring a recall is executed as quickly as possible and without creating cascading roadblocks to patient care.

The Opioid Epidemic

The opioid epidemic is another ongoing, very serious topic of concern in the industry, fueled by years of irresponsible oversight of distribution and a lapse in true medication intelligence. AI and machine learning tools provide a unique opportunity for combatting this nationwide issue.

The opioid epidemic is perhaps one of the most severe issues facing the pharma industry. More than 750,000 people have died from drug overdoses since 1999, and several major pharma companies are in the spotlight for negligent management of these highly addictive substances.

One of the most under-reported components of the opioid epidemic is drug diversion, or theft by a medical professional in a hospital setting. According to a 2019 statistic, 1 in 10 physicians or nurses are addicted to controlled substances.

This has become such a concern that higher education has taken steps to help prepare young pharmacists to navigate this aspects of their responsibilities. In fact, the University of Michigan College of Pharmacy addresses the subject in various ways, eg, seminars, community work and course content that teach students about medication management and how to handle drug diversion incidents.

AI-powered technology provides increased insight into prescribing habits, as well as visibility into the chain of custody of controlled substances. As AI is able to analyze huge data sets of provider behaviors, the technology can flag abnormalities in the management of these medications, making it easier for hospital personnel to investigate and confirm the root cause of any suspicious activity and/or behavior (you can read more about the technology’s impact on real-world diversion cases here).

Without the use of AI, an audit of only 5% of controlled substance administrations might take several hours. AI-backed software systems can provide a 100% audit of controlled substance administration in less time than a 5% manual audit.

Transforming the Future of Pharmacy

The use of AI gives pharmacists more of an opportunity to take an active role in patient care, which is extremely important as value-based care models continue to take center stage in the health care space. Pharmacists can become overwhelmed with managing drug inventory.

Pharmacists are highly trained in patient care and yet, they too often must act as de facto supply chain experts to keep their hospital stocked with the medications it needs. With AI, pharmacists can direct their energy on patient care, as recognized in an official capacity in some states.

AI is here to stay. McKinsey estimates that machine learning and big data in the pharmacy and medical space could amount to a value of $100 billion annually. Although some remain skeptical about the potential of AI, it’s clear to see that the pharmaceutical industry is particularly poised to improve and thrive through its usage.

About the Author

Doug Zurawski, PharmD, currently serves as senior vice president, Clinical Strategy at Kit Check, the leader in automated and intelligent medication management solutions. His goal is to dramatically improve the efficiency and safety of handling and tracking medications in hospitals. Zurawski spent the first 10 years of his career on the provider-side of healthcare serving in various health-system pharmacy leadership positions in Iowa and Michigan. He also served as the West Region Director of Pharmacy for Ascension Detroit, a member of Ascension Health, the largest non-profit health system in the United States. The second 10 years of his career were spent in sales and marketing, sales management, and product development on the healthcare pharmacy technology division of McKesson and for technology start-up ForHealth Technologies, the world's first provider of robotic automation for the compounding of IV admixtures in hospitals. In addition, Dr. Zurawski has experience as an independent consultant to hospitals and health systems in a variety of capacities, including information technology, bedside point-of-care scanning, computerized physician order entry and pharmacy operations. He holds a Pharm.D. degree and serves as an educator and adjunct faculty member at the University of Michigan and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore Colleges of Pharmacy You can follow Dr. Zurawski on LinkedIn here.

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