Automation to drive the innovative pharmaceutical industry forward

With the growing challenges facing the pharmaceutical industry, including the innovation of new drugs and vaccines for new diseases, supply chain complexity, pricing and cost pressures, and reaching more patients, it is becoming necessary for broader automation to be adopted in the industry.

Bada Pharasi, CEO of the Innovative Pharmaceutical Association South Africa (IPASA) discusses the benefits of digitisation to the industry and patients, and how it facilitates the global sharing of knowledge.

Automation of the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries involves the introduction and expansion of many technologically advanced systems and digital procedures to enable improved processes and ensure quality and availability. A good example of this is how digitisation has been used to deliver rapid solutions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Digitisation and the pandemic

The pandemic served as a catalyst for the acceleration of digitisation in healthcare, and revealed a need to have appropriate policies and resources in place to ensure accessibility to healthcare by all who need it.1

The pandemic put pharmaceutical, biotech and manufacturing companies to the test, and they’ve had to gear up to meet the demand. They formed collaborations that spanned developed and developing countries to tackle the task – whether to manufacture the actual vaccines or produce components of it.2

“There has also been a substantial transfer of knowledge and expertise, as well as an increase in technologies that have aided healthcare workers and improved service delivery to patients,” says Pharasi.2

IPASA member companies have supported efforts aimed at strengthening the healthcare system, supporting frontline healthcare workers and high-risk patient groups, as well as providing relief to vulnerable communities. Some members have also created partnerships to manufacture and distribute COVID-19 vaccines on the African continent.3

How automation benefits the pharma industry

Increased automation enhances every aspect of the industry. It facilitates a reduction in costs, improved efficiency and productivity, and the ability to respond rapidly to change.4

Automated systems and artificial intelligence create seamless processes, correct errors, and enable maintenance of systems via the Internet of Things. The smallest human error can have dire consequences for both patients and companies; therefore, some pharmaceutical organisations have introduced digital sensors and robotics, and invested in high-availability computing technology.4

Benefits include the following:

  • Empowered patients: Digital innovations are enabling more patients to take charge of their own health. According to a McKinsey survey, over 85% of patients feel confident in their ability to take responsibility for their health and understand where they can access the digital and online resources they need.5
  • Outcomes-based care: Pharmaceutical technology solutions go beyond drugs and include sensors used to collect and analyse the data that monitors a patient’s condition between visits to the doctor. These solutions drive treatment adherence and generate the data that pharma companies need to showcase the efficacy of their medications.5
  • Enhanced drug development: With access to real-time patient information, pharmaceutical companies can gain a clearer understanding of how a drug affects the user, which can help them to optimise the medication’s effects and minimise any potential side-effects.5

Digitisation has improved data analytics, reduced downtime and improved patients’ access to treatment.6 A good example of this is Telemedicine – using technology to deliver care at a distance. A physician in one location uses a telecommunications infrastructure to deliver care to a patient at a distant site.7

Supply and demand

Supply chain management is also vastly improved through digitisation. This is because it improves insight into supply chain operations and enables better and faster decision-making. It also enhances operational processes to make them more adaptive and responsive. Pharma companies can therefore ensure quality and still keep up with the demand.8

Digitisation allows companies to fully integrate their supply chains and improve operational processes, making them more adaptive and responsive. As a result, planning accuracy, manufacturing efficiency and productivity, inventory levels, and service levels improve.8

Capturing this opportunity requires building a digital supply chain ecosystem, including virtual supply chain control tools, cloud-based information architecture, and a digitally enabled physical supply chain. When these elements come together synchronously, humans, machines and resources communicate as a cyber-physical system, leading to improvements in all stages of the operations value chain: plan, source, make, and deliver.8

“Digitisation can also be utilised to meet global demands, comply with regulations, manufacture medications more cheaply by identifying cost inefficiencies, and interact with suppliers and distributors more easily and quickly to exchange vital information,” adds Pharasi.4

Furthermore, automation, smart sensors, social media, and health applications may be used to track medicine compliance and forecast demand across regions, allowing for real-time manufacture.4

Technological innovations need a talented workforce

IPASA is helping to ensure that South Africa has a globally competitive workforce in pharma innovation and the sciences. The pharma industry and supply chain develops and employs over 14 000 people. Many are in highly skilled roles, and this significantly improves economic productivity.9

Pharasi adds, “R5.5bn is spent in support of knowledge diffusion initiatives comprising clinical research, healthcare programmes, training, and social responsibility initiatives. The industry invests significantly in developing their South African workforce with active talent management practices in place and formalised career pathways across a range of disciplines.”9

Continuing education programmes sponsored by pharma companies contribute to knowledge transfer in South Africa. Thanks to their strong international exposure, multinational pharmaceutical companies provide their staff with the latest sector-specific knowledge and innovations.9

Innovative multinational pharmaceutical companies drive demand for highly qualified people and account for over 4 700 direct jobs in South Africa. Around 70% of the sector’s employees hold either a PhD (physicians, pharmacists, biologists and veterinarians) or a Master’s degree (Management, Finance, Sales, Communication, HR etc.).9

South Africa at the forefront of technological development

When South African scientists discovered the Omicron variant of COVID-19, they were quick to alert the rest of the world which could then put teams in place to conduct hospital and genetic surveillance, monitor vaccine effectiveness, and model the reproductive rate. But this is not a new collaboration.10

There’s been a long-standing collaborative investment – principally around HIV, but also TB and other conditions – in laboratory infrastructure that has made South Africa a critical scientific partner in research and vaccine trials. The ability of South Africa’s scientists to do molecular surveillance, pick up new variants of COVID, sequence them, and understand at a population level the emerging epidemiology, is critically important and valuable to the rest of the world.10

To conclude, while the pharmaceutical industry has already taken advantage of the benefits of digitisation, much more can be achieved. Technology can streamline the systems and processes of the industry and greatly improve availability and distribution of medications and access to healthcare. It also enables global reach and sharing of knowledge to ensure that everyone has access to the healthcare they need.10


  1. Global Policy Principles on Digital Health [Internet]. IFPMA. 2021 [cited 2022 Jan 13]. Available from:
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  3. Brandstories. WATCH: How Innovative Pharma is fighting Covid-19 and supporting communities [Internet]. IOL | News that Connects South Africans. 2021 [cited 2022 Jan 13]. Available from:
  4. Digitalization in pharmaceutical industry: What to focus on under the digital implementation process? International Journal of Pharmaceutics: X. 2021 Dec 1;3:100095.
  5. Nebula, Telecomspeak. How digitalisation is enhancing pharmaceutical technology [Internet]. Nebula. 2020 [cited 2022 Jan 13]. Available from:
  6. Website [Internet]. Available from:;/ Other benefits
  7. What’s the difference between telemedicine and telehealth? [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2022 Jan 13]. Available from:
  8. PricewaterhouseCoopers. Digitization in pharma: Gaining an edge in operations [Internet]. PwC. [cited 2022 Jan 13]. Available from:
  9. IPASA Footprint Study
  10. 10. Omicron in South Africa: The Latest News [Internet]. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. [cited 2022 Jan 13]. Available from: