The online health trends pharma should be tapping into

Pharma should be harnessing some powerful online trends but is it?

Each year digital folk all over the world look to the Internet Trends report, delivered by Bond Capital founder Mary Meeker, for a summary of the most important emerging online technologies and consumer behaviours.

The 2019 report underlines the strength of some trends familiar to pharma and points to some unsettling implications for the industry if it cannot respond appropriately. Along with some general online trends - the growing consumption of images and video, the rise of the podcast and the ongoing spread of Amazon Echo - the report highlights some important consumer healthcare trends.

Perhaps the chief highlight for pharma is the ongoing rise of wearables, whose use has doubled in four years in the US. And rapid growth in their adoption shows no sign of stopping. Gartner’s latest forecast is that the wearables market will grow 27% in 2020 to $52 billion.

Google’s $2.1 billion October acquisition of Fitbit, in a bid to get more deeply involved in the healthcare sector, is yet another sign of the growing importance of wearables to pharma. Google has already been dabbling here for a while - Fitbit was already using Google’s Healthcare API to connect its wearable devices to electronic medical records with the ultimate aim of enabling doctors to get health data straight from their patients’ wrists.

Wearables and Real Time Data

The ongoing rise of wearables is a trend that pharma needs to take very seriously indeed. They are probably central for the future of many pharma companies, says Morten Remmer, former Chief Growth Officer and Head, LEO Innovation Lab Incubator and now Chief Digital Officer at supplements business Puori.

In the era of real world evidence and payment by results, being able to harness passive, real-time data collection is fast becoming an essential discipline to master, offering pharma the chance to gather insights and act on them in an agile way.

“The ability to do passive data collection is growing and that is hugely promising in respect to working with RWE and RWD, which in my mind it is a necessity for making the future business case of pharma work,” says Remmer.

“If you can’t work out how to increase the success rate of drugs once they are authorised then your business case is too poor. Look at the top two grossing drugs in the US in 2017. They worked on between 4% and 25% of the patient population they’re meant to help, which is really appalling.”

Wearables offer the chance to remedy this, says Remmer. “When it comes to patient insights into how a drug drug actually works and what you can do to improve the success rate of drugs, we outsource that to the patient today. If we can optimise, even slightly, on how individuals respond to medication we could make a much stronger case and use a feedback loop with those using wearables to enable us to do it. I can’t see any other way for pharma to remedy its business model to make it sustainable.”

The problem is pharma’s lack of expertise in dealing in very large volumes of data in real time. Pharma should be nervous here given the tech giants’ mastery of real time data and their attempts to muscle in on the healthcare market, he says. “The biggest challenge for pharma is its lack of experience dealing with real time data.”

While R&D departments may have competencies in data use, the data sets involved tend to be relatively small compared to the potential volumes from masses of wearables data. “It lacks experience dealing with massive volumes of RTD and end-user feedback. There is a massive opportunity for the platforms that are experienced. Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple have the competencies and the internal processes to know how to deal with that much data coming in.”

The problem for pharma is not technological but cultural in an industry where the reflex is for pharma to be scared of patient feedback, rather than embracing it. “The attitude is ‘let’s avoid it all costs or we will get a reporting responsibility’” says Remmer.

A big part of the solution is a dramatic ramp up in digital talent and skills but it is hard for the industry to achieve, he adds. “The commercial side is out of touch and very far behind in terms working with data. It is difficult to recruit data scientists to the commercial part of pharma.”

Building strong internal digital competencies with digital specialists is vital but offering incoming digital talent a place where it will feel at home and free to do what it is good at is not straightforward given the constraining, safety first, compliance-driven culture of pharma.

A significant part of any organisation’s appeal to incoming digital talent will be whether it can offer them work with colleagues and team mates they will gain inspiration and learn from, says Remmer.

If hiring proves difficult one possible shortcut is acquiring digital talent wholesale through acquisitions but this comes with the risk that the productive digital culture of the incoming organisation is smothered by the culture of the acquiring business and that the talent it bought in drifts away.

It’s a very hard dilemma to overcome but is one pharma will have to address given the opportunities wearables offer to whoever can harness their potential. Millions more wearables are coming, says Remmer. “Pharma is so far behind and the tech giants have a massive advantage.”

Telemedicine, minute clinics and pharma

The Bond Capital report also highlights the rise of telemedicine, which is part of a convenience trend that has implications for pharma’s commercial teams, says Chris Cullmann, Head of Digital and General Manager at pharmaceutical marketing agency RevHealth.

There’s reason to expect telemedicine to continue to grow rapidly from here, given the pull from patients and its cost effective nature for healthcare providers (HCPs) and payers, not to mention its appeal for employers who stand to benefit from offering more convenient healthcare to their employees, says Cullmann.

Telemedicine is more cost effective, convenient for patients, cuts the risk of disease transmission and helps overcome issues of geography in sparsely populated regions. “The need and the benefits are both there,” says Cullman. “Who would not want it?”

The rise of telemedicine is likely to go hand in hand with an emerging new breed of HCPs that are creating a new paradigm in healthcare based around convenience in the form of ‘minute clinics’ from the likes of Walgreens and other large pharmacy chains that offer in-house physicians able to see patients at shorter notice and with far lower waiting times.

It suggests that increasingly patients will consult with physicians who are part of a larger network providing a PCP-like front-line service, who will have very different relationships with pharma. “Pharma manufacturers need to begin to understand how this will resolve itself. It really changes the model around engagement and promotion and will be more contract-based. If you are a large manufacturer like Pfizer, Merck or Novartis, this becomes akin to the ‘no-see’ physician model,” says Cullmann.

The implication is that pharma will have to respond by re-configuring their rep models to cultivate longer term relationships with these large accounts. “These are not viable targets for traditional reps and they present the challenge of educating and engaging with this professional audience that has its own internal educational solutions and needs as well as its own politics,” says Cullman.

The rise of the podcast

Another strong digital trend highlighted in the Internet Trends report which pharma would do well to try to take advantage of is the going importance of podcasts, says Cullmann. “Podcasts are a huge opportunity. The opportunity they open up in terms of programmatic ad buying is huge, offering very prescriptive targeting.

“It is under recognised as a low-cost way to develop relationships with smaller patient populations with a narrative that is very intimate. It allows the listener to be very engaged and activate different aspects of their brains that are not touched in other channels.

“It changes how you can reach an audience and add value in terms of the discovery and consideration of a new therapy. There is an engagement with podcasts that is not nearly as passive as video watching.”