At last week’s mHealthcon, the soon-to-be-annual event that brings together mobile health entrepreneurs, marketers, patients, and investors to talk shop in New Brunswick, NJ, I couldn’t help but think, “Where is pharma?”
Yes, there were a couple of representatives from manufacturers like Bristol-Myers Squibb. But they were vastly outnumbered by their healthcare peers:
- Managed care organizations
- Large healthcare providers
- Physicians and researchers
Mobile is potentially the greatest opportunity for pharma to break out of its innovation funk. And “The Healthcare City,” as New Brunswick bills itself, would have been a great place for pharma to stoke its creative fires—right in the industry’s backyard.
It’s not as if patients aren’t asking for mobile solutions …
“We have the opportunity to drive an ‘Arab Spring’ in healthcare,” said blogger Casey Quinlan, author of Cancer for Christmas and an outspoken patient advocate. Quinlan, diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, said there were not enough tools available to help her manage her disease and treatment side effects.
“If there had been an app that would have helped me manage my neutropenia (low white blood cell count) and anemia (low red or total blood cell count),” Quinlan told the audience, “I would have easily paid a couple hundred dollars for it.”
Amy Gurowitz, who is launching a learning community for people with MS, said she surveyed her beta testers about their use of tracker apps. Only one person reported using one. “They didn’t even know that these tools are out there,” Gurowitz said, suggesting there is a market for such tools if they can be promoted effectively to patients.
It’s not as if pharma companies are ignoring mobile opportunities…
To be fair, pharma has produced a growing number of mobile apps and tools. (Quick plug: You can read about some mobile pharma case studies in an earlier blog post I co-wrote with digital buddy Megan Beardsley). Some have been built for patients, while most target healthcare providers.
Still, I’m not convinced that pharma is fully prepared for the coming mobile onslaught. And I’m not the only one.
At a conference break, I caught the attention of Paulo Machado, a leading voice in pharma innovation and the former Innovation Director at AstraZeneca. During our conversation, Paulo really helped crystallize pharma’s conundrum.
In essence, he said, pharma companies are manufacturers. And it’s much harder for manufacturers to evolve away from a product-centric mindset than it is for service providers—your payers, hospitals, clinics, and most other health organizations.
Paulo said that healthcare reform is driving service companies away from the fee-for-service model. “They actually have to run profitable businesses now,” he observed.
Translation: Payers, not pharma, may end up leading the charge into mobile health.
Any tool that helps patients improve outcomes and lower costs will be mission-critical
Sure enough, later in the day Michael Monson, SVP Performance & Innovation at the Visiting Nurse Service of New York (VNSNY), encouraged mobile health entrepreneurs to bring him innovative ideas… like, now.
Headquartered in Manhattan, VNSNY is the country’s largest not-for-profit home healthcare service. It is both a provider and a payer. Monson explained that innovation is a large component of the company’s strategic approach. As healthcare evolves in the US, mobile seems to be a major way forward.
“We really like using behavioral science,” Monson said, referencing partner Welldoc, which is running a mobile adherence pilot for VNSNY with diabetes patients. Welldoc was in the news recently when Ford announced a beta test in which diabetic drivers could “ask” their cars to check their blood glucose levels. The Ford beta is being powered by a Welldoc wireless health monitoring platform.
It’s innovations like these—“software devices that enhance consumers’ lives,” Monson said—that are going to power the future of mobile health.
Mobilization can work for pharma too
The economic rewards for innovation certainly favor companies like Monson’s. But I believe pharma also needs to stand up and put the industry’s significant weight behind mobile health initiatives. Apps would be the logical place to start—they are the most “product-like” side of mobile—and the FDA already issued guidance for health apps this summer.
For pharma innovators interested in going mobile, some next steps should include:
- Familiarizing yourself with the FDA mobile app guidelines
- Getting outside the pharma space
- Download and use some of the mobile tools that other healthcare organizations have built
- Look for parallels that could be applicable to branded/unbranded product marketing
Finally, challenge your agencies to think blue sky—have them bring their strongest ideas for mobile to the table, and explore opportunities to pilot in 2012.