How Roche’s Internal Language Service Creates Value for the Pharma Giant

With over 94,000 employees located across 100 countries, Roche is a major multinational healthcare company. Claudine Nick, Head of Project Management for Language Services at Roche told the audience at SlatorCon Zurich 2018 that the “pioneer in personalized healthcare” is “specialized in oncology, immunology, infectious diseases, ophthalmology and diseases of the central nervous system.”

The Language Services team at Roche provides services including translation, proofreading, editing, interpreting, and occasionally transcripts, to Roche’s internal customers and affiliates, Nick shared. “It’s a wide range of text types that we cover for our customers,” said Nick, including “menus, IT, legal, HR documents, package inserts, of course press releases, internal and external applications, annual and financial reports, up to clinical studies, submissions and so on.”

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Comprised of 17 staff, the Language Services team works with “over 2,700 registered customers, [processes] 3,500 orders per year [and] 120,000 translated pages per year, and we are offering all language combinations,” Nick said. “The most requested combination in-house is into Spanish and mostly for our affiliates in Latin America,” she added. To manage this demand, the team implemented a new workflow manager a few years ago, which is “quite user friendly, [and] is used daily and worldwide by all our requesters in order to place their orders,” Nick stated.

The Language Services team is made up of two groups: project management, which Nick heads up, and language specialists. There are two language specialists for German and English, one for French and three for Spanish, as well as two proofreaders. On top of this, there is a Head of Language Services, and a key account and relationship manager, Nick said.

Interface

Nick explained that her team of five project managers “act as an interface between our internal customers…, and our agencies, freelancers and internal translators.” Nick said that the team is “currently working with over 40 freelancers and agencies with whom we do have a long lasting relationship, signed contracts and confidentiality agreements, and negotiated prices.” But the most urgent and / or very confidential requests are often handled internally, Nick shared.

Nick said that the team’s status as a “center of excellence” means that the internal customers “are not obliged to come to us. They can shop around on the market, which means for us: hard work and adapting to the customers needs and technologies to be a provider of choice in a highly competitive environment.”

Internal customers “are not obliged to come to us. They can shop around on the market, which means for us: hard work and adapting to the customers needs and technologies to be a provider of choice in a highly competitive environment.”

Cost and Timeline Pressures

Within this highly competitive environment, there are a number of internal challenges that the Language Services team is facing, Nick said. Most glaringly is the fact that, “increasingly, our clients are asking for translation in real time and in highly accelerated time frames, combined of course with quality and low cost, or no cost at all,” Nick told the audience. Because of this, Nick said, “we need to take an agile approach.”

There is often little room for negotiation on timeline because of “the need for fast filing,” Nick said. “Drugs have to get to market on time in order to save lives and of course generate business results. 100s of pages, huge dossiers have to be translated, reviewed to tight deadlines. We are very often handling several dossiers at one time, which binds resources for lengthy periods,” Nick added.

Drugs have to get to market on time in order to save lives and of course generate business results. 100s of pages, huge dossiers have to be translated, reviewed to tight deadlines. We are very often handling several dossiers at one time, which binds resources for lengthy periods.” 

Yet despite the fact that translations are quite often mandatory for regulatory purposes, “very often we are the last link in the chain. Sometimes we have even been completely forgotten and in the last second the requester thinks or remembers ‘oh by the way I think I need a translation’”, Nick said.

Another important consideration for the Language Services team is cost since “our customers have to pay for the invoices of our providers directly,” Nick said. Cost pressures are increasing, according to Nick, because budgets are “being cut more and more…and that’s why we have to sign new contracts and renegotiate prices….We hear more and more ‘we will do the translation internally, because in that case it won’t cost us anything.’”

It is quite difficult to make it clear to a customer that quality needs time and that it takes even more time to turn a bad original into a good translation.”

Nick’s team needs to demonstrate “a certain flexibility in order to meet the requesters needs,” Nick said, explaining that it can also be challenging to manage the expectations of internal customers: “It is quite difficult to make it clear to a customer that quality needs time and that it takes even more time to turn a bad original into a good translation.” It is also important to explain how the team works and that it’s not a matter of “just pushing a button and the translation pops out,” she said.

Why Roche Does Not Yet Use Machine Translation

On the topic of instantaneous translation, Nick said that Roche is not using machine translation yet, but believes that it is “probably the future of our industry.” She elaborated: “As machines become more adept at language service I think we are going to have to change the way we work internally. But for us, for Roche, it also raises a huge problem, which is the problem of data privacy and intellectual property, especially in a highly regulated IT environment like ours, dealing with very sensitive translations.” Nick added: “For the moment at least machine translation is limited in its capabilities and we still need competent human translators – thank God!

“For the moment at least machine translation is limited in its capabilities and we still need competent human translators – thank God!

Data privacy and compliance are key considerations, therefore, and Nick explained that for companies like Roche, “the rules are very strict and compliance is one very important word.” Moreover, the new GDPR regulation, “is of great importance for us as a company and our services.” Data privacy considerations extend to Roche’s external language providers, Nick said, and “the trend of online working with our provider” can lead to data security concerns.

Regulatory Complexities and the Value Add of an Internal Team

There are also a number of external influences that govern the working practices of Roche’s Language Services team. One such factor is the need to collaborate with “health authorities all over the world and [take into account] their differentiated requirements,” Nick said. Because of this, she noted, “we need to follow precise processes with predefined templates for MAA, for example, (market authorization application).” There are potentially grave consequences for not adhering to these processes, Nick cautioned. For example, “a medicine could be rejected and thousands of patients would not have access to their therapy.”

Claudine Nick, Roche

Regulatory bodies enforce strict regulations relating to the production of drugs, Nick said, “which are checked and controlled on a regular basis by the authorities, for example the FDA. Also our providers have to be compliant with Swiss local laws, even if they are based in different countries, which makes the contracts even more difficult to set up.”

There are potentially grave consequences for not adhering to these processes. For example, “a medicine could be rejected and thousands of patients would not have access to their therapy.”

Given all of these complexities, Nick said that having an internal language service department to manage translation requirements is of “big value for a company” like Roche. For one thing, the presence of an internal team helps to alleviate the administrative burden of the translation requesters, allowing them to “focus and concentrate on their core business,” Nick highlighted.

Moreover, “we can offer an in-house experience of over 40 years. We do have Roche-specific terminology databases and we do know precisely the Roche terminology,” Nick said. In addition, “one of our very important advantages is certainly the proximity to our customers, who sit just round the corner. We can have face-to-face meetings, we understand their needs and problems as we are all part of Roche.”

On the management of external providers, Nick admitted that “the testing is quite challenging for them, I must say. Healthcare is a specific field and we need to have really specialised translators. And then we follow up with our translators and we do really good coaching by giving feedback in order to get our providers to the right level.”  

“And most important of all,” Nick stressed, “we all belong to the same company and it is in the interest of all of us that it flourishes.”

Esther Bond

Research Analyst at Slator. Localization enthusiast, linguist and inquisitor. London native.