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Digital health: “It’s time for pharma to put its money where its mouth is”

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The pandemic years saw an explosion in digital health tools across the globe.

One area to have been transformed by this innovation is pharma, with digital health now commonplace across the supply chain.

Four expert panellists recently came together to discuss this emerging marketplace in an exclusive Health Tech World webinar, hosted by Alastair MacColl.

Panellists:

NMBLR founder, Janice MacLennan

blueBrix chairman and CEO, Shameem Hameed

Phlo chief pharmacist, Alistair Murray

Business consultant, Becky Warnes

Host: Alastair MacColl

Here are our highlights.

How do we scale digital health initiatives and bring products and medicines to market as rapidly as possible?

Becky, who has worked in the space for a number of years, said that it’s important to understand the territory that a product is being sold into.

This requires a familiarity with regulations and demographics.

Meanwhile, there needs to be robust, transparent evidence to support the product, Becky added.

She said: “Technology is here and it’s evolving. It’s going to make lives so much better in terms of being able to bring products to market quicker.

“But ultimately, you’ve got to be ensuring that there is that unmet need. And it’s not just technology for the sake of technology.”

Janice observed that many SME biotechs are resource-constrained. In order to get their platforms up and running, they need to attract investors and commercial partners.

Achieving this will require a robust communications strategy, she added.

Alister argued that there is the potential for patients to access medicines in real time –  if you can get them to flow through the system properly.

Meanwhile, he added, the best way to get a service up and running is to do what Shameem suggested – plug into something that’s already been developed.

How far are we from finding a way to use digital to revolutionise how people access medicines?

Shameem doesn’t think the pharma industry is serious about digital health. It is merely paying lip service.

He said:

“Think back to what happened with electric cars. You had all these big car companies spending a few billion dollars here and there, but they never paid serious attention to it until Tesla came along.

“That’s what’s happening now with digital therapeutics. In order to change that, we need a disruptor to come along and make that change.

“Big pharma is unwilling to take leadership and risk.”

Becky disagreed, saying that pharma is looking at drug alternatives but regulations are hampering investment. And could it be shareholders who are scared to take the leap, rather that companies themselves, she asked?

Janice also believes that the interest is there, with companies looking to digital health as a way to create value for patients.

They are open to finding ways to improve patient access and make patients more compliant with their medicines, she said.

But pharma needs to develop digital health tools while drugs are in development, not as an afterthought, she added.

Alister believes that there a big opportunity emerging with pharmacogenomics and personalised medicine.

He noted that data supporting this will be vital, and apps can help here.

However, he argued, regulations will need to be updated to allow for more, appropriate data sharing where it’s in the interest of the patient and health system.

Alister said:

“Ideally, we’ll get to a stage where it’s improving people’s health and making it cheaper and more efficient to actually deliver the service overall.

“We’ve got health suites from Apple and Android. It’s not impossible to build something that connects to those and enables patients to decide what they share with the GP or whoever it may be.”

Is there a collective movement towards us all having our own digital healthcare passport that allows us to own our data and take responsibility for our care?

Shameem believes that personalised medicine is the destination, if we use the technology tools correctly.

But pharma companies need to decide whether they’re in the business of making drugs or developing holistic solutions to a problem.

They also need to work towards tailoring therapies to different demographics.

Janice added:

“I’m so positive and optimistic about where we’re going.

“But I’ve seen so many diagrams of all the different digital health apps and it’s overwhelming.

“I don’t know how a healthcare system manages that. Maybe, like Alister said, we need these different things to talk to each other.

“You can’t have one app for diabetes, one for cardiovascular and so on. We need something that works across disease states.”

How do you get patients to use their medicine correctly? Surely digital support is a solution for this?

Digital means you’re not limited to single conversation with your doctor, Alister said. And the tech gives the patient access to more resources than just your standard patient info leaflet.

Apps can also provide reminders to ensure that the patient is taking their medication as directed and orders more when they’re running low, he added.

Nonetheless, as Janice noted, not everyone is digitally literate, so digital health may not be appropriate for all patients. There cannot be a one size fits all approach, she added.

But Alister countered that people are generally more tech-literate than we might assume. People in their 60s today were in their 40s when Google launched.

Shameem believes that there’s an opportunity to learn from social media when it comes to medicine compliance.

He said:

“Many of us have unused medicines because we don’t complete the full course as directed.

“But behavioural change algorithms used in social media can help us to make profound changes. This is where digital health can make an impact.”

A lot of young companies are spearheading the digital health revolution, chair Alistair noted.

What support is out there to help these innovative businesses to scale up their products and services?

Becky said that there are two main barriers for startups – where to get funding and knowing how to approach the market.

She added:

“The NHS is notoriously difficult to get into. But a lot of the time startups don’t necessarily help themselves.

“A few companies that I’ve worked with have got amazing websites, but when you ask them how they’re going to get into the market, they don’t have a clue.

“They might have a connection in a hospital. But there’s been very limited co-design with clinicians, and there’s been very limited thought on that go to market strategy.

“When investors get involved in a product, they need to think about how they’re going to commercialise it and how it’s going to spread and scale. That’s something that’s really missing at the moment.”

Shameem, meanwhile, said that the current investment approach is to raise as much money as possible. But many companies lose focus about what they’re here for.

He added:

“Companies need perseverance. It’s not just about raising money, it’s about the result.”

To wrap up the conversation, host Alastair asked: What are the big priorities for digital health in pharma and wider healthcare?

And where do the big dividends lie?

Shameem:

“Pharma companies need to embrace digital and start thinking about themselves as more than drug-makers and take a holistic approach. It cannot be one size fits all.

“Digital health is not a panacea for everything. But there is a big opportunity in the mental health space where it can scale at tackle a lot of problems.”

Becky:

“There’s a lot of talk at the moment within pharma about ‘going beyond the pill.’

“Now it’s time to put your money where your mouth is and focus on creating solutions that are better for patients, that are needed, and not just going to make the industry look good or generate money.”

Janice: “For me, it’s using digital health to drive improvements in efficiencies in healthcare systems around the world.

“Because if we can get people diagnosed earlier, we can get them to access the right treatment sooner. I think that will be huge.”

Alister: “I think the information needs to just flow around the system much more safely, securely and efficiently so that innovations can take place around the patient and around the service.

“That will lead to improvements in accessibility, efficiency and so on.”

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