Pharma Meets the Digital Health Craze: Competition or Coalition?

Pharma has been slow to adopt advanced data technology. Will digital health innovations provide an area for partnership, or become pharma’s biggest competitor?

New startups and digital health technologies are challenging the models of incumbent pharma giants and reshaping the future of medicine. Traditionally, the pharma model has been reliant on the long and slow process of drug development and aggressive marketing strategies. But now, digital health innovations that employ data sensors and artificial intelligence are shifting the primary point of patient contact from the doctor's office to mobile phones and other virtual spaces. Treatment of chronic diseases like diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are prime targets for disruption among mHealth programs. One example is Livongo Health, a California startup that monitors and analyzes patient blood sugar levels through a small device and connects them to a coach for real-time advice and customized support. This product may reduce or even eliminate the need for medication, thus driving costs down substantially for disease management. Companies like Livongo can also aggregate and analyze patient health data it collects, information that could prove to be key for companies that wish to assess and improve patient’s adherence to medical treatment regimens. Some pharma companies are trying to incorporate Silicon Valley-esque technologies into their product usage, but it’s generally been a slow transition. Some firms seem to be more digitally-inclined than others: France-based Sanofi has partnered with Verily Life Sciences to create devices that help patients manage their diabetes; Pfizer is working with IBM Watson’s data analysis capabilities to determine new drug targets in immuno-oncology; and Switzerland-based Novartis has set up a program with Sanitas, a Swiss health insurer, to provide coaching and heart monitoring for patients with heart failure. Pressures on pharma to prove product effectiveness and cut costs may push companies toward tech partnerships and faster tech implementation in order to maintain market relevance. —AA

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