mPharma 1/31/12

I’ve been researching mobile technology use and strategy for pharmaceutical companies. I find the whole drug discovery, distribution, and marketing industry to be fascinating because of the sheer size and tightrope walking that needs to be done around regulation and brand marketing to consumers.

I also think pharma has a lot to overcome when it comes to perceptions, especially with the younger generation of providers that has been taught that drug companies are the evil empire. I don’t think any issues are that black and white, but it is certainly the perception that most of my friends and I gained from medical school.

I met a couple of people from Merck recently at a conference. When the subject of pharma’s rep in medical training came up, both told me that Merck has always had a commitment to medical education, dating back to the original Merck Manual from the 1800s. It was funny because I obviously knew the Merck Manual, but hadn’t even made the association that it could be the mega-drug company. I was told by the Merck folks that the Manual is kept separate from the rest of Merck so as not to tarnish its image.

Whether you like it or not, pharma is a major player in healthcare. Like payers, pharma has a lot to gain through technology-enabled services and also has some resources to invest in the area. What I’ve found is that pharma seems to dabbling in different types of mobile health services, but no major successes or standards exist. The big areas of mobile that seem to fit best with pharma are clinical trials, adherence, and education on the consumer side and med reference and access on the provider side.

In terms of consumers, clinical trials are a big area where mobile can be utilized. Mobile enables pharma to do better recruitment and pre-screening, reducing the cost and burden of CROs. Once a patients is enrolled, mobile also enables collection of mobile patient reported outcomes (mPRO) and better connectivity to study coordinators, ideally leading to higher engagement levels and higher retention rates.

A good example of the potential of mobile in clinical trials was the recently initiated Participatory Patient-Centered (PPC) trial in which Pfizer leveraged Exco InTouch as a mobile platform to recruit, enroll, and retain study subjects, regardless of location and without dedicated clinical sites. With clinical trials recruitment, especially of minority participants, so expensive and time consuming, leveraging mobile to breakdown geographic boundaries while maintaining virtual connectivity is something we should be seeing a lot more of in the future.

Medication adherence is another area with lots of different people are going after it. In addition to the reduced cost associated with better adherence rates, pharma companies have a lot to gain from increased utilization (more frequent refills) associated with higher adherence rates. From connected devices like Vitality’s Glowcaps and MedMinder’s Maya (connected pillbox) to ingestion monitors like Proteus Helios, companies and investors are betting big on automated monitoring of medication adherence.

I think some of these (like Proteus) are probably a bit much, but I’d love to see something like a Striiv for medication adherence — something that combines automated collection of adherence data (like GlowCaps) with an always-on indicator of adherence status. I’m not sure if it will work for adherence, as I think the cause of adherence is multi-factorial, but I’d love to see somebody try.

On the provider side for pharma, there are the obvious apps that can act as dynamic and focused product inserts and dosing guides. I think to make this higher value for providers, it would be great to add in some functionality around samples and access programs. Maybe providers could be able to automatically order more samples of medications, providing pharma with good insights on sample use while also helping providers have enough samples on hand for those patients that need them.

Additionally, helping providers with the process of enrolling, or initiating enrollment, in patient access programs benefits both the provider and the patient while helping to meet the mission of access programs to deliver medications to those that need them, but otherwise might not have the means to acquire them.

As I’m writing this, I’m realizing lots of these services, which have obvious financial and image benefits for pharma, really do have significant benefit to both providers and patients, not to mention retail pharmacies and connected family members. It even makes me wonder if pharma couldn’t extend some of these services, if done correctly, to be more than complementary to existing products.

Could pharma start earning real revenue as a technology and mobile services provider? I’ve heard people at both insurance companies and pharma companies say their companies want to become technology companies. For pharma companies, I can’t really buy it. What do you think?

Travis Good is an MD/MBA involved with health IT startups. More about me.

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