Pharma's next step is digital health as a therapeutic

By Aditi Pai
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Dr. Joseph Kvedar Dr. Joseph Kvedar

Pharmaceutical companies are just beginning to think of digital health offerings as therapeutics, Dr. Joseph Kvedar, the vice president of Connected Health at Partners HealthCare, told MobiHealthNews Managing Editor Jonah Comstock at the HIMSS Connected Health Conference this week.

Kvedar explained that several years ago pharmaceutical company marketing departments would look to digital health tools as something they could use when marketing a therapeutic drug, but slowly pharma companies have begun to consider digital health tools themselves as a therapeutic offering.

"We are seeing more of that now. We are seeing more instances where people either are adding a wearable component as part of the package or an app that is an integral part of the therapeutic," Kvedar said. "We have quite a bit of evidence from our own group that tools like apps and wearables in themselves can offer a therapeutic success independent of molecules. We all ought to start thinking quite differently about the space, and not everything that makes you better is a pill."

Kvedar's organization is at least somewhat involved in working with pharma to create these kinds of offerings. Just over two years ago, the Center for Connected Health partnered with pharma company Daiichi Sankyo to bring mobile device monitoring to atrial fibrillation patients.

"It’s been a really exciting journey because frankly it’s the first time any company of that size in the market came forward and said we want to try something," Kvedar said.

He added that they are about to put a co-developed app into clinical trials and although they do not have data yet on how effective it will be, they are optimistic. And once they have reached the end of their work, Kvedar said the expectation is Daiichi Sankyo will make their offerings open source.

"I think there are new economies, I've thought a lot about this and I'm not as articulate as I would like on it because I don’t fully understand how the tech industry does this, but as you all know, you can share Fitbit data with other wearables, there’s a lot of open APIs to share things back and forth," he said. "There’s a sort of mentality that sharing is OK in certain aspects of the economy, particularly, it seems, in the tech sector. So it’s possible that there’s a new pharma model where a rising tide of adherence will lift everyone’s boat."

It may take a while for this shift to occur because it's difficult for pharma to stray away from it's current business model.

"I make analogies to our own space, which is to say healthcare providers who have done quite well under the current system for so long, it’s hard to change," Kvedar said. "Even though we have done well as providers, the amount of margin that pharma companies made in the old way of doing business is breathtaking, so you can imagine it’s hard for them to change. We’re seeing some evidence that it’s being taken seriously now. It is more than just, 'Let’s see if we can add the marketing component by maybe putting an app up that somehow advertises our drug,' but we’ve got a ways to go."

He also said, though, that once a company manages to use digital health as a therapeutic, more pharma companies will begin to see the benefits.

"I think the bright, shining glimmer is that if you've ever done software businesses, they scale quite nicely and they can be very high margin," he said. "I can just see that there’s going to be some pharma company that’s going to poach from a Google or a Facebook and build something that is quite exciting from a digital health perspective and will make them money. And that’ll be a turning point."