‘Digiceuticals’: A Force Multiplier to Contain Chronic Diseases

There is a growing need for more effective prevention, treatment or management of many serious Noninfectious Chronic Diseases (NCDs), with greater safety and at a lesser cost. As a major step in this direction, ‘digiceuticals’ or ‘digital therapeutics’ are now drawing heightened interest from the medical and scientific communities.

‘Digiceuticals’ are basically custom made digital software working as drugs. These are presented mostly in the form of user-friendly smartphone apps for various disease conditions –  both as stand-alone therapy, or to augment other treatment processes for better outcomes.

Increasing usage of digital technology enabled therapy for a gamut NCDs, prompts me to discuss in this article the relevance, scope, promise, and of course, the rationale behind the same. Its importance swells manifold when the risks of lifelong health hazards that such chronic disorders may pose are factored-in, alongside their overall socioeconomic impact.

Chronic diseases – the invisible global epidemic:

Chronic diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, chronic respiratory disorders and diabetes, including cancer, are by far the leading causes of death and disability worldwide. The World Health Organization (W.H.O) also reiterates that this invisible epidemic is spreading out globally – across every region and pervading all socioeconomic classes.

The mortality, morbidity and disability attributed to chronic diseases, as estimated by the W.H.O, is expected to rise to 73 percent of all deaths and 60 percent of the global burden of disease by 2020. Interestingly, 79 percent of the deaths attributed to chronic disorders occur in the developing countries, such as India.

Can chronic diseases be prevented?

W.H.O also emphasizes that four of the most prominent chronic disorders, namely cardiovascular (CVD), cancer, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases (COPD), and Type 2 diabetes – are linked by common and preventable biological risk factors, notably high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and overweight. Most importantly, these relate to major behavioral risk factors, like unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and tobacco use, among several others.

Awaits a radical change – from “Suppliers Push” to “Consumer Pull”:

In the above perspective, a series of well-integrated action related to several human behavioral factors, could help prevent many NCDs, effectively. A fundamental change in mindset of all concerned is critical to avert the merciless onslaught of this epidemic. This calls for a radical change in the existing process of addressing these disorders – from “Suppliers Push” to “Consumer Pull.”

The January 2017 White Paper titled, “Human-Centric Health: Behavior Change and the Prevention of Non- Communicable Diseases”, published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), drives home this point succinctly, as follows:

“Decreasing the burden of NCDs will require a transformation through which the threat of disease is recognized and addressed. The transformation should move us away from the present state of ‘supplier push’, which emphasizes expensive, capital-intensive, hospital-centric interventions that have so far produced disappointing results, to a system that relies on ‘consumer pull’. A consumer-focused system would recognize the principles of behavioral economics to encourage and enable people to adopt healthier behavior across all aspects of their lives. Individuals would be supported in this effort by a network of critical stakeholders ranging from government to private enterprise, from healthcare providers to payers, from the technology developers to local communities.”

NCDs are triggered by behavioral pattern and lifestyle:

Picking up the thread from here, I shall deliberate now, how the state of the art digital technology-developers are playing a stellar role in this space, with greater precision and more cost-effective way. This is because, many NCDs are triggered by consistent behavioral and lifestyle pattern of an individual. Consequently, continuously monitoring of desired changes in individual behavior, are expected to gradually become the first-line treatment to effectively address these conditions. Several published studies indicate that the process has started rolling, aided by smartphone based sophisticated digital tools – in many cases even without any expensive and lifelong medications.

The May 26, 2016 paper titled, “Clustering of Five Health-Related Behaviors for Chronic Disease Prevention Among Adults, United States, 2013”, captures a cluster of five health-related behaviors for chronic disease prevention as – never smoking, getting regular physical activity, consuming no alcohol or only moderate amounts, maintaining a normal body weight, and obtaining daily sufficient sleep. This article was published by the Centers of disease Control and Prevention of the United States.

Preventing chronic diseases with ‘digiceuticals’:

The April 7, 2017 article captioned, “Can ‘Digital Therapeutics’ Be as Good as Drugs?”, published by the MIT Technology Review, dwells on this area. The paper indicates an emerging belief among technology geeks that ‘digiceuticals’, or digital drugs will become ‘the third phase’ of medicine for many disease conditions, being the successor to the chemical and protein drugs that we have today, but without the billion-dollar cost of bringing one such drug to market. The core idea behind this new concept is to develop software that can improve a person’s health as much as a drug can, but without the same cost and side-effects, the author says.

An innovative new class of medicine:

The term digital therapeutics or ‘digiceuticals’, as many calls these, is considered as an innovative new class of medicine that gives participants access to the world’s most effective behavior therapies, enhanced with smart digital technology, and delivered directly to their front door. These can be used both as a replacing medicine, and also for enhancing efficacy of a medical treatment, as a situation would necessitate.

There doesn’t seem to be any clear-cut difference between these two – digital therapeutics and ‘digiceuticals’. Nonetheless, some do believe that there is a difference – quite akin to prescription medication versus nutritional supplements, with consequential differences in regulatory and other areas. Be that as it may, ‘digiceuticals’ when used for prevention, treatment or effective management of any chronic ailments would require to be scientifically evaluated just as any other drugs, devices and treatment processes.

The future of health care will be App-based:

Another article titled “Digital Therapeutics: The Future of Health Care Will Be App-Based”, published in Forbes on July 24, 2017, highlights how several digital technology companies are now focusing on the development of state of art smartphone app-based digital treatment programs that can be delivered at a massive scale and with a low cost to prevent progression of many debilitating NCDs, for a large population across the world, including India.

‘Digiceuticals’ versus other mobile wellness apps:

Unlike many smartphone based wellness apps to keep a regular tab on daily exercises, heart rates, calorie intakes, breathing, sleep pattern among several others; treatment processes with ‘digiceuticals’ are quite different. These softwares are tailor-made to prevent or treat specific chronic disorders, like diabetes, cardiovascular conditions, COPD, insomnia and chronic depression, to name a few. The trend is fast catching up along with an increasing general realization that the influence of individual behavior and lifestyle pattern is so crucial in the prevention, and also in arresting the progression of many debilitating NCDs.

The current status:

The latest scenario in this area has been well captured in several research studies. One such is the 2017 Report of Grand View Research, Inc., which articulated the following key findings:

  • The global ‘digiceuticals’ or digital therapeutics market size was estimated at USD1.7 Billion in 2016, which is expected to grow at 21.0 percent CAGR from 2017 to 2025.Diabetes is expected to gain the largest market share due to the increasing global prevalence, fueled by the preventive steps taken to reduce them.
  • The adoption of digital therapeutics offers a reduction in healthcare cost associated with many NCDs, and are thus being used on an increasing scale. Digital tracking, continuous monitoring of various health parameters, management of physical activity and controlling eating habits are some of the important factors expected to propel the market growth.
  • Ascending trend of its usage for prevention of a wide range of NCDs would further add to the growth momentum. Patients accounted for the largest market share in the end-user segment owing to user-friendly interface and cost-effective management of many NCDs.
  • The North American region accounted for the highest revenue owing to technological advancement and health care expenditure to curb rise in a number of chronic diseases.
  • The Asia Pacific region is expected to garner considerable growth during the forecast period owing to increasing adoption of advanced healthcare technologies and rise in the number of NCDs.

The latest development in India:

A similar initiative, though, as augmentation of physician intervention in patients with Type 2 diabetes for better treatment outcomes, has recently been reported by the Press Trust of India (PTI) on June 13, 2017.

The abstract of the report, among other points, says that an Indian digital diabetes leader has announced “the results from a pilot designed to evaluate the feasibility and scalability of an artificial intelligence-led lifestyle intervention to improve self-management of people living with type 2 diabetes as a supporting tool to existing care in India…. The pilot results suggest that continuity of care between physician appointments for people with type 2 diabetes can be achieved with positive outcomes in a clinically significant, scalable and affordable way through this program. Participants that completed the pilot on average dropped their average blood sugar levels (HbA1c) by 0.59%. Amongst the participants that completed and dropped their HbA1c, the average observed was even higher at 1.04%. In addition, the participants showed a daily active usage of 78% for the duration of the 16-week program.”

This is indeed a laudable initiative by an Indian digital tech company. More such ventures are expected to be forthcoming, taking rapid strides in India. Keeping pace with these developments, “digiceuticals,” I reckon, will spread its wings faster to play a crucial role in preventing, if not treating and managing several serious NCDs – and in most cases without even swallowing any pill.

Conclusion:

The key concept behind ‘digiceuticals’ or digital therapeutics is to exert a strong influence on individual behavior and lifestyle pattern, which are crucial both in prevention, and in controlling the progression of many NCDs.  The desired level of change in behavior and lifestyle of individuals can be achieved through custom-made digital software. These are expected to deliver the same, or even better results in such disease conditions, at a much lesser cost, sans any serious side effects.

The ball has already started rolling with considerable success and a discernible promise in this direction. However, accelerating its speed further, and ultimately flooring the gas pedal, would depend on how all concerned stakeholders’, especially the technology experts, doctors, pharma industry, and other health care providers work in-sync with each other, leveraging the true potential of ‘digiceuticals’.

The rapid pace of progress in this endeavor will be a force multiplier in arresting the fast spreading ‘invisible epidemic’, as it were, of many serious chronic diseases or disorders, in a much better and cost-effective way than ever before.

By: Tapan J. Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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