Vijesh Unnikrishnan co-wrote this article with Pete Masloski
It’s not often that you get medtech, pharma and venture capital executives to sit on the same panel and participate with enthusiasm and excitement—unless the topic is digital health, where the cross-pollination of ideas and solutions across industry players is becoming more of a norm than an exception. At ZS’s recent Digital and Connected Health Summit, we were fortunate to host a panel of experts who engaged us in a lively discussion: Andy Atwell, executive director of new business development at Omron; Pankaj Dubey, senior director, U.S. commercial, at Abbvie; Divya Varshney, digital health lead at Baxter; and Megan Zweig, director of research at Rock Health. The panelists shared their excitement and optimism, and some examples of how they see life sciences companies adopting digital health solutions to solve patient needs and drive industry growth.
You might expect quite divergent opinions but, surprisingly, the panelists shared many similar perspectives. They were all deeply interested in solving end-customer needs, passionate about what technology can do and pragmatic about driving change in healthcare. It was clear that each was interested in what the others were doing in digital health, such as supporting patients with their treatment journey, influencing behavior in chronic disease management, connecting providers to better data for personalized care or accelerating the introduction of technology into healthcare. The consensus was that digital can be an effective means to improving outcomes and costs in healthcare. Here’s a summary of some key themes from the discussion:
- Opportunities to leverage digital health lie all along the life sciences value chain. The opportunity for digitally enabled R&D was a no-brainer for most panelists. Connected clinical trial solutions are enabling faster patient identification and recruitment as well as simplifying many of the operationally burdensome steps of clinical trials such as compliance monitoring and side-effect reporting. On the commercial side of the value chain, companies are applying digital health solutions to go “beyond the box” or “beyond the pill” by leveraging digital tools to meet a brand’s commercial or patient support objectives. Using digital to deliver brand needs is an immediate area of focus, be it better coordination of distribution and access services or patient awareness programs linked with care coordination and adherence solutions. Panelists also believe that digital therapeutics (in mental health and chronic conditions such as diabetes) bring novel mechanisms of action and serve as a powerful complement to the core drug portfolio. Moving further outside of the core brand or product, there is also an opportunity to use digital health to participate in value-based programs. They want to help providers shift the care burden to lower cost-of-care sites using remote diagnostics and monitoring, especially for the elderly and chronically ill. A consistent theme in all of these solutions is the ability to continually create new sources of data that can in turn generate evidence and patient understanding, which is a key opportunity for investing in digital health solutions.
- When evaluating new technology, remember to put humans first. One panelist added that no matter what solution you pick, it must be “grounded in the patient journey.” Panelists described digital health solutions that are increasingly collecting and organizing large amounts of unstructured behavioral and lifestyle data to help “digitally illuminate” the patient journey as a key source of product and service innovation. The group also pointed out that many digital health solutions focused on chronic disease management are challenged with user retention, especially at key points in the adoption cycle at six weeks, two months and four months. Solutions that are built to overcome this retention issue or analytical solutions that help diagnose and resolve these engagement issues algorithmically are particularly valuable. The value of novel software-based methods to detect and diagnose disease represents another area where panelists agreed, mostly because they believed that there’s an opportunity to reduce healthcare costs by early detection and treatment. Applications of AI and machine learning were seen as exciting across the board, from advanced areas like drug discovery to applications like personalized and efficient health coach or nurse call centers. On the hardware side, the panelists explained that passive sensors, which require limited to no user engagement but still generate valuable behavioral and environmental data, are attractive, particularly as the aging population become target users of digital health services. Augmented or virtual reality, while early in its adoption life cycle, is showing promise in challenging use cases, such as treating depression among the elderly or for chronic pain management, making it very interesting as a potential technology complement to a drug.
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- Life sciences companies face real challenges in digital health, but the Apple Watch isn’t one of them. Enthusiastic as they may be, panelists were not shy about pragmatic issues facing life sciences companies in developing and commercializing digital health solutions. External issues that native digital health companies have been dealing with are also challenges for life sciences companies: concern around FDA timelines and pathways, and a lack of or limited reimbursement for digital solutions. However, life sciences companies also acknowledge some unique challenges they face, such as tension on how a digital therapeutic may cannibalize drug revenue or how to make portfolio-level investment decisions in digital solutions across therapy areas that are brand-agnostic. Panelists felt that while these challenges were significant, they expect issues to be resolved over time as the industry learns from commercializing digital health solutions at scale.
We wondered whether Apple launching its watch with a single-lead EKG and heart rhythm algorithm might represent a significant competitive threat by big tech to traditional manufacturers. But panelists were rather unperturbed and, in fact, they felt that tech players advancing into healthcare might be welcome and better for everyone involved. Tech firms bring deep consumer understanding and highly scalable platforms, and by partnering with life sciences companies, they can create specialized applications that address patient and provider needs in a particular therapy area. Life sciences companies also bring decades of healthcare delivery and distribution expertise, which can in turn help tech firms expand their products’ usefulness across the healthcare spectrum. They saw it as a win-win; however, they do expect some growing pains in such partnerships. For example, pharma will need to learn to deal with six- to 12-month technology product cycles and a technology business model that focuses on user growth versus profit growth.
Overall, the panelists were enthusiastic about the future of digitally enabled life sciences companies, and what digital can do for patients and our healthcare system. We’re grateful to the panelists for their contribution and for sharing their insights with the industry.