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Pharma IT Execs Gather to Discuss Concerns; Workflows, Semantic Web Among Hot Topics

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BOSTON — Workflows, integration, and the semantic web are emerging as key issues among pharmaceutical IT decision-makers, judging from a recent industry conference.
 
Cambridge Healthtech Institute’s Bridging Pharma and IT conference, held here this week, provided a forum for approximately 120 attendees to share breakthroughs and pose questions about the challenges facing the industry today.
 
According to Tracey Fielding, CHS marketing manager with oversight over the conference, final numbers have not been tallied, but after accounting for five to ten walk-ins, the figure should be about 120. “They were split between pharma, vendors and academics,” Fielding said of the delegates, with more vendors and pharmaceutical representatives in attendance than academics.
 
The conference, now in its third year, covered many of the same issues that dotted the spectrum in previous years, such as ROI, knowledge management systems, building a stable infrastructure, and in-house development versus third-party contractors.
However, these were trumped by topics du jour such as workflows, integration, and building a semantic web. To a lesser extent, preparing standardized electronic health records and other relatively new pharma concerns were debated.
 
A further clue into pharma’s current concerns was the number of delegates signed up for the various roundtable discussions: The table discussing electronic laboratory notebooks (see related article ELENA: LINK TO 1B) was full, while one on interoperability of data integration and IT databases drew less but substantial interest. Roundtables on performance, management, metrics and balanced scorecard-IT and business issues, and genomics and electronic health records attracted only one delegate each.
 
Workflows Top Concern at Merck
 
One topic that frequently arose — workflows — was discussed in depth by Lori Harmon, manager of drug discovery project support at Merck Research Labs IT, who said that workflow was a top concern when creating a Merck-wide biologics database.
 
After evaluating bids from three outside vendors and the merits of two in-house applications, Merck decided to upgrade one of its existing systems for four reasons: workflow and functionality; ease of use; implementation time and cost; and ease of deployment. They ultimately went with an in-house system.
 
The evaluation process included the merits of building a centralized repository versus distributing cell lines and cell culture workflows.
 
"Every year around this time, we propose key projects," Harmon said, adding that the pharma has limited money to spend on its systems.
 

In the past, Merck tended to rely on internal resources for projects like this, "but more and more, we're outsourcing, like others."

In the past, she said, Merck tended to rely on internal resources for projects like this, “but more and more, we're outsourcing, like others.”
 
"We needed an application that could be scaled and [delivered] to other groups," she said, highlighting the need to remain flexible enough to expand, and to be "upgradeable" and "integrate-able."
 
Further, Harmon said, Merck needed an intuitive system that used standardized terms, which are crucial for consistency and searching.
 
What's New?
 
If cost as a driver is the old kid-on-the-block, modeling and visualization, and a universal electronic health record are among the more "sexy" discussion topics at pharmas these days, if the Boston talks are any indication.
 
One presentation, by Susie Stephens, a research scientist with Eli Lilly & Co., concerned new developments in semantic web technology, and seemed to generate a genuine buzz in the audience. The topic was popular enough to draw a full roundtable. 
 
Yet while new topics may be compelling, they aren’t always wholly or well received. A pharma rep who spoke to BioInform said, for example, that while an electronic health record isn’t a bad idea, “I think it’s going to be difficult and costly. The idea that it will pay for itself – I have a real hard time believing. It’s [implementing a nationwide patient records database] a complex process.”

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