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European Pharmaceutical Contractor

Mobile Future

Working with one of our partners – a leader in marketing and recruitment for clinical trials – is what first opened my eyes to the vast potential and missed opportunities in the pharmaceutical industry.

The current state of mobile applications in pharma is reminiscent of that in the publishing industry of the not so distant past; in 2010 and 2011, there seemed to be a rumbling across the sector of the impact such new technology could have. While many argued that most people would never want to consume print content on the tiny screen of a mobile phone, there was enough empirical data to suggest otherwise.

Fear of Change

By 2012, the giants of the publishing world were waking up to the trend – but only just. I remember clearly a well-publicised digital conference in that same year, where I stood before a group of leading magazine and print publishers, and spoke about the fast-moving wave of mobile technology. The attendees were clearly nervous about what was coming. None of them wanted to make the wrong move – so, collectively, they decided to not make any at all. From a day of roundtable discussions, conversations and panels, I could see that there was a feeling of ‘analysis paralysis’.

The speech I gave went something like this: “Sorry to break it to you, but the future is still indeterminate; it is a very nascent space. Nobody can tell you exactly what to do – which means that anyone in this room has the potential to dominate the market. So, if you want to own publishing’s mobile future, gather up as much related data as you can and start experimenting.”

Looking back, I can say with some certainty that the majority of them did not seize the opportunity. Flash forward to today, a number of those same publishers are now giving away a good portion of their mobile revenues to a content platform developed by someone else, with little or no control over how that information is experienced.

Embracing Innovation

Today, pharma is at a similar crossroads, with some players rolling up their sleeves and making large investments, while many others are watching from the sidelines, waiting to see what emerges. This is an odd strategy considering the explosive and innovative growth in mHealth.

At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, my business partner and I were amazed by the quantity, quality and sheer variety of technological initiatives happening across mHealth. Seemingly, more so than in recent years, the showroom floor was filled with booth after booth of connected mobile devices and their complementary apps.

While consumers are certainly embracing healthcare technology, the medical industry itself is a veritable breeding ground for innovation. According to Epocrates’ 2014 Mobile Trends Report, “more than 80% of nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and pharmacists contend that mobile device usage has led to improved patient care… Easier, faster access to information and increased flexibility to work outside the office were cited as the key drivers among allied health professionals who utilize a smartphone or tablet for professional purposes” (1).

This same report also revealed that “hospital pharmacists lead all respondents in tablet adoption and digital omnivore status… Nearly 60% of pharmacists claim that the US Affordable Care Act’s emphasis on technology has helped them improve patient care”. A ‘digital omnivore’ is one who consumes information equally across desktop, mobile phone and tablet devices.

Clearly, there is massive opportunity for mobile in pharma – but, then, why are so many companies choosing not to participate?

There are, of course, significant guidelines concerning privacy of information and data security. However, these same concerns are no less fiercely regulated in the financial industry, which has seen its own mobile revolution.

Seizing the Opportunity

Not all pharma businesses are simply sitting on the sidelines; some industry leaders are making the necessary investments of time, focus and money, and others are experimenting. Novartis, for example, set up an ‘mHealth challenge’ in 2013, described as “a 48-hour development marathon… aimed at identifying a novel way to use mobile technology to address a major health challenge”. It involved “more than 160 developers and companies [competing] for cash prizes, designing a mobile solution that would help provide caregivers with novel tools to navigate the daily challenges of caring for a loved one with heart failure. The winning solution, created by Sense.ly, features an avatar medical assistant that allows health care professionals to remotely monitor the health of someone living with the disease” (2).

Pfizer has more than a dozen mobile programs, designed for certain patient populations in specific geographic regions (3), while BBK Worldwide has created a suite of applications designed to support patient recruitment by providing anytime, anywhere access to information for study participants, investigative sites and sponsors of clinical research.

Creating Efficiency

Such mobile technology offers patients a secure environment where they can retrieve regulatory approved information and messaging, while tracking appointments and preparing for study visits. Designing a program around a patented security system allows only portions of the app relevant to the study participant or his/her caregiver to be unlocked, delivering appropriate communications targeted to that particular patient, for that particular study, at that particular time.

By keeping sites and study teams constantly informed with the latest, regulatory approved protocols, improved prescreening and site-polling features, tools for evaluation and training, and patient materials, all the complexity and cost associated with outdated processes is removed. Utilising these new data streams can offer live analytics to sponsors – showing how sites are performing, and which might need improved engagement and/ or additional materials. A constant flow of information can also quickly alert the study team to issues like low pre-screening numbers, which, if not addressed swiftly, will have a major impact on the research as a whole.

Great work is being done in specific sectors of the industry too – such as diabetes care, in which several businesses have stepped forth with integrated solutions that address patient needs, from diet and nutrition, to mobile-synced glucose monitoring.

Only the Start

The shining examples discussed above are only the beginning of what is possible. Pharma is being spurred forward by novel technologies – wearable devices, for instance – which can autonomously track vital patient data and report back a wealth of information that has never before been available to a clinician. On a recent call with Apple to discuss its new ResearchKit, I was struck by the collective acknowledgement that, with all of these recent advances, we are truly just at the start of the mHealth journey.

It is yet to be determined if a real gamechanging technology is on its way from a pharma giant, a visionary player in the space, or a person working in his study late into the night, quietly coding what could be the next great disruptor. But, no matter where it comes from, the advice I would give the industry would be: “Anyone can potentially dominate the market. So, if you want to own pharma’s mobile future, gather up as much related data as you can and start experimenting.” This does not seem like too much of a stretch for a sector that spends billions every year doing precisely that.

References

1. Epocrates, Mobile trends report, 2014
2. Visit: www.novartis.com/newsroom/feature-stories/2014/06/mHealth-arevolution-in-healthcare.shtml
3. Visit: www.pocket.md/company/29/pfizer-medical-apps.html


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Dave Swartz is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of MEDL Mobile – a custom mobile development agency that has architected, developed and launched hundreds of mobile applications – and the co-founder and President of Hang With Inc – the company behind the live-streaming social media mobile app Hang w/. The app allows users to ‘hang with’ each other through live video and reached the 1,000,000 download mark in just nine months of launch.
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