Digital innovation: Transforming healthcare for the 21st century

Written by:

Miranda Weston-Smith

BioBeat Founder

Catherine Priestley

Head of BioPharmaceuticals R&D Communications, AstraZeneca

Cristina Duran is Chief Digital Health Officer, R&D at AstraZeneca, responsible for harnessing the power of digital technology to accelerate the development and delivery of new medicines to patients. 

Cristina is giving the keynote at the upcoming BioBeat21 Summit, where an international community of scientists, innovators, entrepreneurs and investors will join together to discuss what the future holds for digital innovation in clinical trials.


As BioBeat21 Summit co-hosts, we interviewed her ahead of the meeting to get her perspective on the opportunities for improving patient-centered care that lie at the convergence of healthcare and digital technologies.

What drew you to the digital health space?

Cristina: I’ve long been passionate about the opportunities for innovative technologies to bring value and change lives.

Before coming to AstraZeneca I was a consultant working with technology companies to help them adapt and transform in the face of a fast-changing digital world. However, while digital technologies have driven huge changes in many sectors, from banking to booking holidays, healthcare has historically lagged behind.

This means we now have a golden opportunity to use digital, data and technology to provide a better experience for patients that will not only improve outcomes but also put humans firmly at the heart of healthcare. I can’t think of a more exciting and impactful area to be working in.

Why is AstraZeneca interested in digital health?

Cristina: Digital Health offers a great opportunity to revolutionise healthcare for patients.

Within R&D, a key priority is using digital technologies to transform our clinical trials. We have been working with patients to understand how to make clinical trials easier for them and have co-created digital solutions with patients, from solutions to help them find trials, to being able to participate and provide data remotely from home.

A second priority is to improve patient outcomes through digital health solutions. By providing scientifically-validated digital solutions, such as a device and a smartphone app, alongside their treatment, we can help patients monitor key symptoms and relevant data. This can help them manage their disease, with the aim of preventing deterioration or problems and giving them more control.

Finally, in the longer term we’re looking to revolutionise the way that healthcare is delivered. Digital technologies and AI offer the chance to transform individual healthcare journeys and outcomes by improving earlier diagnosis, precision therapies and proactive monitoring in a way that hasn’t been possible until now.

You’re collaborating with a number of other companies to develop digital health solutions. How does that relationship work?

Cristina: We start with the unmet need, using patient insights and science-based evidence to define our approach to innovation and collaboration in digital health. We’re creating an ecosystem of strategic partnerships – from promising tech start-ups to world-leading academic groups – with 55 already in place.

We bring together innovative ideas and technology to improve how we develop and deliver medicines to patients, and our partners get vital support to help them scale and navigate the complex regulatory environment that exists in healthcare.

Fundamentally, because we share a common purpose to improve life and health it’s a win-win situation for all. 

What advice would you offer to digital health startups looking to partner with AstraZeneca?

Cristina: One thing I will say is that we see a lot of companies offering solutions in search of problems. By contrast, we are always coming from the other end: understanding and characterising the problems and pain points in the healthcare experience, then looking for solutions that will solve them.

I’d advise any founders looking to get into this space to start by thinking clearly about the problem your technology solves then go forward from there, rather than the other way around, and also reviewing who else is working in this space and how your idea differentiates.

In such a fast-moving world, how do we ensure that advances in digital healthcare remain centred on patients?

Cristina: Patients have to be at the heart of healthcare, and digital health is no exception. After all, they know themselves and their condition best!

We work closely with patients throughout the digital development process, from the initial ideation and co-creation of tools through to testing and deployment. We also feed these findings back to our partner companies, to help them optimise their tools and make them as user-friendly as possible.

More philosophically, we have an incredible opportunity here to redefine people’s relationship to wellness and disease, offering more personalised information, data and insights so they can take charge of their health on whatever level they wish.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the digital health landscape?

Cristina: The pandemic has been a huge catalyst for change and is creating opportunities to deliver more for patients than previously thought possible.

For example, around three quarters of patients and physicians now say they would prefer online/telephone appointments for non-urgent care. We’ve also seen the rapid acceleration of virtual or hybrid clinical trials involving at-home participation and monitoring.

All of these ideas were starting to happen, but they’ve arrived much faster. As far as our own digital health programmes are concerned, we have been working in this space for several years, so our priorities and direction haven’t changed as a result of COVID-19. What has changed is the pace. We are scaling far faster than we previously anticipated in order to take advantage of this rapidly-changing world.

What are the biggest challenges in realising the opportunities in digital health?

Cristina: There are currently more than 300,000 health apps on the market, yet from our internal analysis, only a small proportion have robust data to show that they actually help and have scientific evidence.

We need to ensure we are generating robust scientific evidence to show that digital technologies work, particularly when it comes to developing regulated digital health solutions that doctors can prescribe.

Making this happen is a job for everyone. Companies, regulators, healthcare providers and patients all need to work together to get things moving forward in a timely way, while still ensuring that these new technologies are safe and effective.

What excites you most in the digital health space?

Cristina: Personally, I’m passionate about using health technology to solve the challenge of early detection in cancer. The chances of survival can go from 90% to just 10% simply as a result of being diagnosed late – that’s a staggering number of lives that could be saved through better screening and earlier detection.

More broadly, it’s great to be part of such a thriving industry and I’m thrilled to see the breadth of innovative companies that are springing up here in the UK, including those represented at the upcoming BioBeat21 Summit.

I believe that digital health technologies offer an opportunity to reimagine healthcare in a holistic way, moving towards a more proactive focus on maintaining health over a lifetime rather than just intervening when we get sick.

Change is happening fast, and I’m excited to see where it can take us.

Cristina will be delivering the keynote lecture at the BioBeat21 Summit, Transforming medicine development through digital innovation, which will be streamed live from AstraZeneca’s global R&D Centre, Cambridge, UK, on Tuesday 9 November 2021, 14.00-16.30 GMT. Register now to join us.


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Veeva ID: Z4-38373

Date of preparation: October 2021