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Culture of Innovation

The cloud and COVID-19: Pivoting in a crisis to protect lives

One of Asia's largest healthcare services companies accelerates change with Azure so medicines and medical supplies get to all who need them

Let’s think of a business plan as if it were a race. You’re at the starting line. The pistol goes off. Then all of a sudden, the rules change. The marathon you thought you were running has become a sprint.

That is what happened to one of Asia’s largest and oldest healthcare services groups, Zuellig Pharma, which distributes and provides drugs, medical supplies, and services across 13 countries.

When the COVID-19 pandemic swept the region, mandatory lockdowns for its customers, offices, and staff threatened its ability to serve 350,000 medical facilities, hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, and ultimately millions of patients.

To ensure that vital supplies get to everyone who needs them, the company has moved quickly and  tapped the power of the cloud.

“Everybody was impacted,” recalls Tom Vanmolkot, the company’s Executive Vice President for Distribution and Client Services. “Everybody had to wake up to a new reality. We had to adapt.”

Within a matter of weeks, the company built and launched a range of new digital solutions that are now overcoming ongoing unprecedented logistical challenges.

 A critical move to the cloud

It was able to pivot fast because of an earlier decision to shift its operational systems to the cloud. This turned out to be a critical move.

About 18 months before the crisis struck, Zuellig Pharma had embarked upon a major digital transformation journey. The goal was to reshape its business model, deploy new services, and create new efficiencies.

At the time, this near-century-old company had been more than happy to approach change carefully and cautiously. New digital solutions for on-the-ground operations were being scheduled, but at a slow and steady pace – sometimes months or even years ahead.

 

“Everybody was impacted. Everybody had to wake up to a new reality. We had to adapt.”

– Tom Vanmolkot, Zuellig Pharma

In the meantime, the company took the crucial step of assembling a forward-looking tech team that worked hard at building strong foundations for the switchover to Microsoft Azure. This included moving its existing SAP mission-critical system into SAP on HANA on Azure for better scalability and performance.

Their efforts put Zuellig Pharma in the box seat and paid off spectacularly in February when the pandemic’s arrival abruptly changed everything.

“The huge amount of groundwork we had put in gave us the ability to accelerate the development and deployment of new solutions,” Vanmolkot says.

Almost overnight, sweeping social and economic restrictions forced the company to rethink its processes and workflows. Suddenly, the cloud became an enabler and accelerator of change that has fostered a bold new culture of innovation within its once conservative ranks.

An agile first-mover

The response to the pandemic meant that gradualism was out and innovation is in.

Within a matter of weeks, Zuellig Pharma went from being a traditional and cautious player in the market to what Vanmolkot describes as “an agile first mover” that can act fast.

“Because we upgraded the company’s systems and migrated to cloud-based services with Microsoft Azure, what would have taken weeks to do before can now be done in days,” he says. “What would have taken months or years to launch can now be implemented in weeks.”

 

“Customers can access our services remotely, anytime from any location. This is critical to ensuring the supply of essential healthcare and access to medicines.”

The power and size of Azure have enabled Zuellig Pharma to meet the demands of its customers in the crisis and to build for future opportunities.

“Before we didn’t fully realize the power of the cloud. We were using bits and pieces of it and some features. But we did not realize the importance of its scalability and flexibility. We now better appreciate the value of the technology we have,” he says. “We have an amazing team that is willing to go the extra mile. They are delivering cutting edge solutions that make healthcare more accessible and help save lives.”

In the initial weeks of the outbreak, Zuellig Pharma launched a host of new ways to save and streamline its day-to-day operations so that pharmacists and physicians could carry on.

Among its most notable innovations are two new ordering and payment platforms, eZRx and eZPay. Both are now online many months ahead of schedule, so customers in Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines can maintain vital stocks during the outbreak.

Anytime from any location

“Our salesforce teams are currently unable to visit customers or enter hospitals. With eZRx and eZPay, customers can access our services remotely, anytime from any location. This is critical to ensuring the supply of essential healthcare and access to medicines.”

The eZRx platform allows users to track the status of their orders. They can also view past purchase histories to inform upcoming purchase decisions. All orders are fulfilled according to schedule, with product integrity maintained. The eZPay solution helps customers manage their accounts and make payments securely.

“We will roll out the new eZRx across all our other markets in the coming months,” Vanmolkot says. “This will support our clients and customers by ensuring that we can fulfill orders for life-saving drugs during these unprecedented times.”

Meanwhile, Zuellig Pharma has also developed a new system to help thwart the spread of potentially dangerous counterfeit drugs and vaccines. eZTracker is a smartphone app powered by SAP’s blockchain platform. A consumer can verify the authenticity of a medicine by simply scanning a code on the packaging. It is has recently launched in Hong Kong and will soon be deployed more widely.

“As part of our response to COVID-19, we are working on accelerating the launch of the app into the Philippines to help support its mass vaccination program and to track up to one million flu vaccine doses. The solution can support any vaccines and be rapidly deployed into any region.”

 

“We will see a fundamental change in the way doctors, pharmacies, hospitals, and patients interact in a post-COVID-19 world with the products we are building.” 

Zuellig Pharma will soon launch a new telemedicine system, eZConsult, that has an AI chatbot and can connect doctors and patients remotely for virtual consultations. It can also help schedule appointments and arrange a prescription home delivery.

Users can locate the nearest pharmacy chain for medicine collection, generate medical certificates, and store history from previous consultations, prescriptions, and payments. It will support all payment forms, from credit cards to payment wallets.

This application, which is initially being deployed in the Phillippines, has been fast-tracked within a matter of weeks. It runs on Azure and interfaces directly with Zuellig Pharma’s core SAP system.

Vanmolkot says the rapid development of new digital services like these “are changing our organization profoundly.”

“There has been a huge excitement among our teams who are making these ideas a reality. The fact that we are developing solutions that bring essential medicines to patients that help save lives – has driven them to accelerate development during these unprecedented times,” he says.

A people-first approach 

Meanwhile, the company has undergone a head-to-toe corporate transformation.

Central to Zuellig Pharma’s success has been a “people-first” approach to digital transformation. A practical example of this has been the use of Microsoft 365 by employees who are currently obliged to stay at home and practice social distancing.

“We can stay connected and productive. Through Microsoft Teams, we are able to have conference calls and share files during meetings. Yammer allows us to stay socially connected and rally employees during this difficult time. SharePoint and OneDrive make file sharing convenient.”

Vanmolkot says Zuellig Pharma’s employees are its “core assets.” “The health, wellbeing, and expertise of our employees have always been vital to the success of our innovation. Our teams have been working tirelessly to bring innovative services to our customers and the communities we serve – from our frontline delivery personnel to our functional support teams.”

Long after the pandemic is gone, many of the innovations and solutions developed during the COVID-19 crisis are likely to have a lasting effect on how healthcare is practiced, organized, and delivered.

“We will see a fundamental change in the ways doctors, pharmacies, hospitals, and patients interact in a post-COVID-19 world with the products we are building,” Vanmolkot says. “These digital solutions will be invaluable to patients and will become core to making healthcare more accessible going forward.”