Pharma's Digital Future

Writing in the New York Times at the end of 2011, entrepreneur and former director of the M.I.T. Media Lab Frank Moss laid out a vision of what he called consumer health. It’s a vision to link together a slew of technologies that are already developed and maturing.

The coming “digital nervous system” comprises inconspicuous wireless sensors on the body, in clothing and around the home to monitor vital signs and the daily activities that affect health. The data gathered from these devices is then analyzed by software and displayed in ways that help the user understand the health implications of what they’re doing. This is an innovative form of real-time feedback, helping users to develop greater awareness of their behavior. If anomalies show up in the monitoring (e.g., accelerated heart rate, raised blood pressure), the system would guide the user to run basic tests and take the necessary action: modify behavior, or take OTC medication, or set up a remote medical consultation, or visit a physician.



This is a promising development for pharmaceutical companies. They have developed high levels of expertise in addressing the biological dimensions of disease at a molecular level. Now, as digital ecosystems evolve, they will need to become expert in addressing the thought processes of physicians and patients, and the decisions and behavior that flow from them.

Creating digital platforms and services

Interaction is a characteristic difference between previous healthcare mindsets and the way things are heading in the dynamic digital ecosystem. Rather than reps hurriedly touching base with physicians on visits, and rather than periodic exchanges of information between patients and physicians during scheduled visits, all parties in a dynamic digital system will be able to consult and exchange information in a continuum across multiple channels in multiple directions, as required: pharma-physician, pharma-patient, physician-physician, physician-patient, patient-patient and combinations of all those.

For pharma, this digital evolution offers the prospect of a seamless flow of communication and data for customer profiling and decision support. It moves communication with patients and healthcare professionals beyond a website model into a distributed, inter-related system. This will enable pharma companies to enhance customer engagement through access to information and services that advance the experience of care: to build a framework that directs perpetual innovation: and to drive performance through intelligence by aggregating execution and data capture from digital channels.

Getting specific – pharma launches

The pharma market is going to turn very busy over the 2013-15 period, with new brands jostling for attention, and this time the stakes are even higher than usual.

Whatever the technical merits of specific pharma launch products may be, their success will depend more than ever before on how effectively they blend digital into their launch process – and how much value their digital services add to the product offering.

This is especially the case with products developed for repeated use over many years in the treatment of chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and autoimmune diseases. Chronic conditions require a lot of changes in lifestyle; medication is just a part of the treatment. The more useful services a brand can offer physicians and patients to manage their condition and adapt their lifestyle, the stronger a proposition it will have throughout the patient journey. Digital gives brands scope to provide services that add value without adding significant cost burdens either to themselves or to physicians and patients.

Just as the pharmaceutical product itself is conceived and prepared far in advance of the launch, so too will the suite of service elements need to be conceived and built well in advance, and as part of an overall understanding of the patient journey.

A critical new service offering

Digital services will have to be available in web, tablet and mobile formats so that users can switch between devices and still access the services seamlessly. The services should leverage the strengths of each type of interface. A desktop or laptop computer is ideal for inputting text, reading text and getting a one-screen “dashboard” overview. Smartphones are perfect for capturing on-the-go data: brief text, voice or video notes, and sensor-based inputs such as heart rate and motion data. For healthcare professionals, tablets provide the ability to access medical records, make notes and share information with patients interactively.

The services will have to be conceived to meet the practical and emotional needs of stakeholders on the patient journey. For patients: alerts for physician appointments: apps giving an easy ability to keep track of their condition and seamlessly merge with external datapoints (such as weather) for a broader picture of the treatment and its effect; online information about the condition and its management; social media to connect with other patients; all turning into visual physician discussion guides.

For physicians: access to the patient’s treatment tracker: alerts to new resources related to the condition, such as research papers and conferences: interactive materials to share at the point of care with patients to help them understand their condition.

As cross- platform dynamic digital services are trialed and established, these basic features will become standardized; brands will be expected to offer them alongside the product, and indeed they may become part of the treatment protocol. There is an immediate opportunity is to set the standards in this space. Beyond that, the crucial edge may come from identifying and meeting a particular unmet need of patients with a particular condition, or it may come from offering better functionality. Whichever is that case, it opens up the scope for creativity and competition to serve users better.

In an increasingly competitive and value-conscious healthcare market, pharma companies need to look beyond their labs and their customers for their own long-term health.

2 comments about "Pharma's Digital Future".
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  1. Robert Hallock from Robert Hallock Consulting, January 27, 2012 at 10:32 a.m.

    Larry, well stated. We at Wellness Layers began creating interactive technology with pharma 15 years ago (prior to the web) and now specialize in wellness solutions weaving together wellness personal tools with community and information. Pharma has been slow to adopt due to regulatory concerns--some of this is certainly justified, but there are definitely some online tools and community which can be developed which will not cause regulatory problems. We partner with clients and their agencies to make this happen.

  2. Kelley Connors from KC Healthcare Communications LLC, January 28, 2012 at 11:14 a.m.

    Thanks Larry and Robert for this important discussion. The adoption of wellness behaviors and attitudes as a complement to Rx medicines is critical and I see digital apps as a pathway to helping some patients. Interactions must also be both face to face as well as social and digital. For value-conscious health care market, partnerships with service providers and grassroots advocacy is where I can offer expertise.

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