Digital health is still somewhat of an enigma to many in the traditional world of pharma, but that is rapidly changing. As the use cases for digital tools continues to evolve, the life science world is starting to make a concerted effort to engage the new technologies.
This growing digital health ecosystem is now a major conversation point at MassBio, an organization dedicated to advancing the state of Massachusetts’ leadership in the life science industry and adding value to the healthcare system.
“With the convergences of life sciences and digital health, we are already seeing outstanding opportunities to transform patient care and drug discoveries,” Kendalle Burlin O’Connell, COO at MassBio told MobiHealthNews. “We knew that integrating digital into the life sciences was happening, and we knew that there were other industries that were doing it [and] doing it better. So if we wanted to stay on top, we needed to take a strategic look at what needs to be done.”
Recently the organization has spelled out a number of ways its promoting understanding and education across the fields involved in digital health. Over the winter MassBio teamed up with Deloitte to released its first digital health report, which also includes a road map for the future.
One of the key takeaways was providing cross discipline education to train up the next workforce of digital health.
“Where we want this is a true convergence, not just somebody who comes out of pure tech and tries and goes into the clinical side, or someone who comes out of medical school and takes a few computer science courses and now is somehow an expert. You really want to have a convergence of industry,” Luba Greenwood, a member of the MassBio board, told MobiHealthNews.
Greenwood recently told MobiHealthNews she is departing Verily, where she served as the head of strategic business development and corporate ventures, in order to teach this intersectional discipline at Harvard. She will also continue her work as a board member at MassBio and advisor at the Dana Faber.
She stressed that understanding the intersection of so many fields is not just important at an executive level, but across the entire workforce.
“It is not just at the CEO level. A lot of science people think about who do we have as the CEO. There are many articles that are talking about, 'Do you want someone with an MD? Do you want someone with a computer science world?' If you want to have a real ecosystem, real entrepreneurship, in an area where we come up with more than gadgets and fun things — where we come up with solutions to meet real medical need, unmet medical needs — you need [collaboration],” Greenwood said.
When developing any digital solution there needs to be a team of individuals with different experiences, she said.
“If you are trying to make a product for example, diabetes. When you are trying to build out a product, what are diabetes patients going to be actually using? How are they going to make the product? To make the product you need to have data scientists, clinicians and computer scientists all working together,” Greenwood said. “Many of them are much more junior. For many of them this is their first job.”
That’s where MassBio is angling to make some change. Their MassConnect program has a history of linking up early career professionals within biotech — connecting graduates of science programs to clinical practices, life science players, computer scientists and the legal field. Now the organization is looking to do something similar in the digital field.
“That is where we see MassBio having a strength because we have already done this for biotech,” Greenwood said. “The point is you have to convene them. As much as they want to do it, you have to have an actual place for them to get together, and not just a place but also the tools to make sure they have the right conversation and are tackling the same hurdles. So that's what MassBio is doing: bringing them together in one place.”
But the players in digital health are different than biotech. Greenwood said that MassBio’s Massachusetts focus puts them in a sweet spot for this field because it has not only a plethora of life science companies, but also scores of larger provider organizations.
“When I was on the pharma side we struggled because we had the genomic information, and we had the info for companies like Flatiron health to understand the clinical trial information,” Greenwood said. “There was one major issue, which is that we don’t have an understanding or insight into EHRs to analyze. We don’t have that phenotypic data. The phenotypic data is something that is right now, for pharma and biotech companies, becoming more and more apparent.”
She gave the example of individuals with the BRCA1 gene, which is linked to breast cancer. While the pharma world may know that an individual has the gene, they don’t know key facts from in their medical records like gender, age, social determinants of health and comorbidities that providers will.
This is an example of why the pharma, provider and payer world are now starting to see the benefits of working together.
“As we are thinking forward about a value-based healthcare system, this convergence with digital health is going to allow for more effective measured, outcomes and data, which is going to help with patient access and payer coverage,” O’Connell said.
While today there is still a lot of speace between the tech and pharma worlds, the organization said their experience with biotech has left them with tools to bridge this gap.
“Reflecting on what we did well for the biotech cluster, and how it became the most robust cluster globally, it was at the very core a collaborative relationship with industry, academia and government,” O’Connell said. “If you take these ingredients and the recipe of success and translate that to digital health, that is part of what the report underscored as how MassBio can play a role in the [future].”