Application of digital technology in various spheres of not just business, but in our individual day to life also, promises a disruptive change for the better, from the traditional way of doing things and achieving goals – freeing a lot of precious time for us to do much more, and even faster. An impending tsunami of this digital revolution, as it were, is now all pervasive, with various digital application platforms becoming increasingly more cost effective, quite in tandem with the fast pace of cutting-edge innovation. This is so different from what is generally witnessed in the pharma business.
Interestingly, despite high demand for cost effective health care from all over the world, not much progress in this area is still visible within this industry, in general, and particularly in the pharma business. Various reasons may be attributed to this apathy, which I shall not venture to go into, today.
On the other hand, sniffing a huge opportunity in this largely vacant space, many tech giants and startups are investing heavily to make health care of people easier, and at the same time reap a rich harvest, far outpacing the big pharma players.
As I connect the different dots on world-class digital initiatives in the health space, a clear trend emerges on the global scenario. The way Internet revolution, to start with, followed by smartphones and many other wireless digital services is changing the rhythm of life for many making it much easier, is just amazing. These include a plethora of everyday ‘must-do’ and several other functions, such as, precise need-based information gathering, online banking, tax-filing, shopping, payment, social networking, cloud computing and storage, besides a gamut of other digital services.
Similar disruptive digital innovations are expected in the health care space too, involving many long-awaited patient-centric areas, such as, significant reduction in the cost of medication. I discussed a similar issue in one of my earlier articles, published in this blog. However, today, I shall focus on this specific area, in view of its possible huge impact on the traditional pharma business model.
May reduce need of medication:
That tech startups are developing digital tools that reduce the need of medication, was very recently reported in an article titled, ‘Digital disruptors take big pharma beyond the pill’ published in the Financial Times on April 24, 2017. For example, a California-based startup, has reportedly come out with a digital device, smaller than an iPhone and fitted with a cellular chip, that can keep instant and accurate track of blood sugar levels. If the readings fall in the danger zone, an appropriate text message will be automatically generated for the person, such as – “drink two glasses of water and walk for 15 minutes”. The individual can also seek further help over the telephone from a trained coach – a highly-qualified dietitian for further guidance, the article highlights.
The whiz kid developers of wearable digital devices and apps are now intently working on many innovative health care solutions. Many of these can help early disease detection, and chart the risk profile of persons prone to various ailments, based on an enormous amount of well researched scientific data, significantly reducing the need of medication through effective disease prevention and management protocols. For example, there are umpteen evidences, demonstrating that specific moderate physical exercises help control diabetes just as well as medication, when detected early.
Thus, I reckon, such wearable digital devices and apps carry a huge promise to detect many diseases like, diabetes at its very onset or even before, and influence the person to take the necessary measures. In case of diabetes, it could be like, walking a certain distance every day, along with regular dietary advices from a remote center. Won’t such digital interventions work out far cheaper and convenient than lifelong visits to physicians and administration of anti-diabetic drugs?
The notes of the pharma business playbook need to be rewritten?
Let me quickly elaborate this point with an example of a common chronic ailment, say, diabetes. For effective management of this disease, global pharma players prefer to focus on better and better antidiabetic drug development, and after that spend a fortune towards their effective sales and marketing for generating enough prescription demand. Branded generic manufacturers are no different. This is important for all of them as most patients will have to administer the medicines for chronic ailments for a lifetime, incurring significant recurrent expenses for effective disease control. The first access point of such disease management has always been a doctor, initially for diagnosis and then for lifelong treatment.
Disruptive digital innovation could change the first point of intervention from the doctors to various digital apps or devices. These digital tools would be able to check and capture the person concerned predisposition to chronic diseases like, hypertension and diabetes, besides many other serious ailments, including possible cancer. When detected early, primary disease management advice would be available to patients from the app or the device itself, such as, the above-mentioned device for diabetes. If the preventive practices can manage the disease, and keep it under control, there won’t be any serious need to visit a doctor or pop a pill, thus, avoiding any need of active medication.
In that sense, as the above FT article has articulated, ‘rather than buying a pill, people might buy an overall solution for diabetes’ can’t be more relevant. When it happens, it will have a multiplier effect, possibly impacting the volume of consumption of medicines, just as what disease prevention initiatives do. Consequently, the notes of the pharma business playbook may have to be rewritten with right proactive measures.
As reported, the good news is, at least a couple of global pharma players have started fathoming its impact. This is apparent from Sanofi’s collaboration on digital devices and patient support for diabetics, and to some extent with Pfizer on immuno-oncology, using expertise in data analytics to identify new drug targets.
The key players in this ‘healthcare value chain’:
When the digital health care revolution will invade the current space of traditional-health care, it will create both the winners and losers. This was clearly highlighted in an article titled, ‘A digital revolution in healthcare is speeding up’, published by ‘The Economist’ on March 02, 2017.
From this article, it appears, when viewed in the Indian context that primarily two groups of players are currently ‘fighting a war for control’ of this ‘healthcare value chain’, as follows:
- Traditional innovators: These are pharma companies, hospitals and medical-technology companies, such as, Siemens, GE and Phillips.
- Technology insurgents: These include Microsoft, Apple, Google, and a host of hungry digital entrepreneurs and startups – creating apps, predictive-diagnostics systems and new devices.
Where is the threat to traditional pharma innovators?
This emerging trend could pose a threat to traditional innovators as the individual and collective knowledge base gets wider and wider – the above article envisages. With the medical records getting increasingly digitized with new kinds of patient data available from genomic sequencing, sensors and even from social media, the Government, including many individuals and groups, can now get a much better insight into which treatments work better with avoidable costs, on a value-based yardstick. For example, if digital apps and wearable devices are found even equally effective as drugs, with the least cost, to effectively manage the menace of diabetes in the country, notwithstanding any strong ‘fear arising’ counter propaganda, as we often read and here and there, those will increasingly gain better acceptance from all concerned.
The moot question, therefore, arises, would the drug companies lose significantly to the emerging digital players in the health care arena, such as, Microsoft, Apple and Google?
Tech giants are moving faster:
In several disease areas like, cancer and diabetes, the tech giants are taking longer and bigger strides than the traditional pharma innovators. For example:
- Microsoft has vowed to “solve the problem of cancer” within a decade by using groundbreaking computer science to crack the code of diseased cells so that they can be reprogrammed back to a healthy state.
- Apple has a secret team working on the holy grail for treating diabetes. The Company has a secret group of biomedical engineers developing sensors to monitor blood sugar levels. This initiative was initially envisioned by Steve Jobs before his death. If successful, the advance could help millions of diabetes patients and turn devices, like Apple Watch, into a must-have.
- Verily – the life sciences arm of Google’s parent company Alphabet, has been working on a “smart” glucose-sensing contact lens with Novartis for several years, to detect blood glucose levels through tears, without drawing any blood. However, Novartis has since, reportedly, abandoned its 2016 goal to start testing the autofocus contact lens on people, though it said the groundbreaking product it is “progressing steadily.” It has been widely reported that this could probably be due to the reason that Novartis is possibly mulling to sale its eye care division Alcon.
- Calico, which is also owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, has US$ 1.5 billion in funding to carry out studies in mice, yeast, worms and African naked mole rats for understanding the ageing process, and how to slow it, reports MIT Technology Review.
No wonder, why an article published in Forbes magazine, published on April 15, 2017 considered these tech giants as ‘The Next Big Pharma’. It said, ‘if the innovations of Google and Apple are another wake-up call for the life science industry, which oftentimes has relied on the snooze function of line extensions and extended-release drugs as the source of income and innovation.’
An effective disease treatment solution based on different digital platforms has a key financial advantage, as well. This is because the process of generation of huge amounts of credible scientific data, through large pre-clinical and clinical trials, establishing the efficacy and safety of new drugs on humans for regulatory approval, is immensely expensive, as compared to the digital ones. Intriguingly, no global pharma player does not seem to have launched any significant digital health care solution for patients to reduce the overall cost of disease burden, be it prevention or management.
In that context, it’s encouraging to note the profound comment of the Chief Operating Officer – Jeff Williams of Apple Inc., made during a radio show – ‘Conversations on Health Care’, as reported by ‘appleinsider.com’ on January 06, 2016. During the interaction, Williams reiterated that the rapid progress of technology in this direction is very real, as ‘Apple’ and other smartphone health app developers are stretching the commoditization of computer technology to serve health sciences. In not so distant future, with relatively inexpensive smartphones and supporting health apps – the doctors and researchers can deliver better standards of living, even in severely under-served areas like Africa, where there are only 55 trained specialists in autism.
Thus, it now looks reasonably certain to me that disruptive digital innovation on various chronic health care solutions is ultimately going to reduce the need of medication for many patients, across the world, including India, significantly.
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.