Pfizer follows up successful smoking cessation app with LivingWith, an app for cancer patients

By Jonah Comstock
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Two years after launching its smoking cessation app Quitter's Circle, pharmaceutical company Pfizer is seeing impressive continued engagement with the app. It's also applying the lessons learned from Quitter's Circle toward other mobile health pursuits — including a recently-launched app for people living with cancer.

"We can do surveys right in the app," Mark Pizzini, Pfizer's digital strategy lead, told MobiHealthNews. "Fifty-seven percent of the people reported smoking less as a virtue of using the program. Sixty-four percent said they would recommend it to others. Those are two positive data points we’ve collected. Over 20,000 people downloaded the mobile app. There’s an online Facebook community of more than 170,000 people. All of this is very positive in the pharmaceutical space where the ability to do things like this is much more regulated and controlled."

As MobiHealthNews reported in 2015, Quitter's Circle was designed based on feedback from people on what they needed in order to quite smoking. It incorporates a social feed with a curated network because Pfizer found that quitting smoking can be isolating and that family and friends were top motivators. It includes help scheduling and remembering doctor visits, because the company found that just consulting with a health care provider doubles someone's chance of quitting successfully. And it even includes a crowdfunding feature, because Pfizer found cost was a barrier to quitting for many.

Pfizer doesn't charge for the app or benefit directly from it. Instead, Pizzini said, it's an investment in the wellbeing of the population that has indirect benefits for pharma.

"Obviously smoking is a big public health issue," he said. "So anything we can do to help people quit smoking benefits us from a societal standpoint as well as a reputational standpoint. We know that the help of a healthcare provider and medication is twice as effective as not having that kind of help. And we sell Chantix, so the more we can get people to quit smoking with the help of a healthcare provider, the more likely they are to use a product like Chantix."

Pizzini shared some lessons learned from the development process of Quitter's Circle. 

"One key lesson is to have a sort of lean, focused team," he said, "and what I mean by that is, rather than having 20 people who are spending 20 percent of their time, I’d rather have five people spending 100 percent of their time. That creates an extreme prioritization and focus by those five people."

He also noted the importance of smart partnership and being in the right place at the right time.

"When we started this project in late 2014 ... it was right around the time when the Apple Watch came out," he said. "So one of the things that was really helpful was we got on Apple’s radar screen because there were features that would translate well to the Watch. Apple is very selective about how they work with companies and they liked our idea and thought it was Watch-friendly, so they worked with us in an intensive way to help us get in, see the Watch development kit, and be able to get our stuff into the Watch as soon as we could."

Finally, he said, the key to working with Pfizer's regulatory team was to first work with them to understand the problems to be solved and the approach being taken, and then, when it comes time to present the app itself, to give them as concrete a prototype to explore as possible.

Those and other lessons have already been applied to newer apps from Pfizer like LivingWith, an app that launched earlier this month to help support people with cancer.

"That program at a fundamental level, at a technology building block level, it uses many of the same platforms that we used for Quitter’s Circle," Pizzini said. "Dynamic messaging, user profiles that enables you to gather information about people and start to treat them with slightly different content based on preference or other activities they completed. That whole concept is based on Quitter’s Circle and now we’re reusing it for other programs."

LivingWith includes social components to build a network of loved ones to update about treatments and progression, a dashboard to manage daily tasks and coordinate assistance from family and friends, and features to take notes and keep track of documents between doctor visits. It also includes tracking tools for mood, pain, steps, and sleep.

“Today, more than 15 million people in the United States are living with cancer and that number is expected to grow as emerging science and better therapies are likely to increase the number of patients living with cancer as we strive for a cure,” Liz Barrett, global president of Pfizer Oncology, said in a statement. “Navigating life with cancer poses many challenges for patients and their families and friends, and we hope these unique programs can help their journey.”

As for Quitter's Circle, Pfizer plans to update the app next year with new additions to the user experience. Eventually, Pizzini said, the company will leverage these apps and customer relationships to launch new kinds of tools.

"Eventually we’ll start to cross into spaces that you’ve seen others cross in terms of analytics, big data, and being able to use tools like machine learning. And being able to build better tools and services based on those analytical approaches, we kind of see that as the next thing coming to us."