Today, several pharma players, mostly ‘encouraged’ by many non-pharma tech companies, are trying to gain, at least, a toehold in the digital health care space. It is visible even within the generic drug industry. Such initiatives, as they gain a critical mass, will remold the process of doing – almost everything in the pharma business, catapulting the concerned drug companies to a much higher growth trajectory, as many believe.
This is quite evident from an interview of Fierce Pharma with the senior management of Sandoz – the generic drug arm of Novartis, that was published on May 14, 2019. The honchos said: “We’re looking across the whole value chain to make sure we’re embracing digital and technology wherever we can. So that means from the way that we innovate, to the way that we sell and the way that we operate and do day-to-day business.” The process covers “a whole range of activities from how you use AI and automation, all the way through to prescription digital therapies.”
I discussed about leveraging technology in the pharma space to address many burning issues – both for patients and the pharma industry. One such article, “Focus on Patient Compliance To Boost Sales…And More…”, was published in this blog on May 20, 2019. It establishes that even world-class sales and marketing programs can, at best, ensure higher prescription generations, but can’t prevent over 50 percent revenue loss from those prescriptions, due to patient non-compliance.
Interestingly, the issue of ‘nonadherence to treatment’ is being debated, since several decades. Various conventional measures were suggested and also taken. But the problem still persists in a huge scale, with probably an increasing trend. Thus, fresh measures, preferably by leveraging modern technology, are of high relevance in this area.
In this article, I shall illustrate the above point, with one of the most exciting areas in the digital space – the digital therapeutics. This is a reality today and marching ahead at a much faster pace than many would have anticipated.
Unfolding another disruptive innovation in healthcare:
One of the articles that I wrote on this subject is ‘Unfolding A Disruptive Innovation in Healthcare,’ which highlights a different facet of the same subject. Thus, let me begin today’s discussion with a recapitulation of some important aspects of a drug, particularly the following ones:
- A large number of patients don’t find many drugs accessible and affordable during the entire course of treatment.
- Drugs have to be administered orally, systemically or through any other route
- Alongside effective disease prevention or treatment, many drugs may bother patients with long and short-term side-effects, including serious ones.
- Treatment outcomes can’t often be easily measured by patients.
These are, of course, known to many, but several questions come up in this area, which also deserve serious answers, such as:
- Are drugs indispensable for the treatment of all types of disease?
- Can a holistic disease treatment be made more accessible and affordable with radically different measures?
- Can the same effectiveness of a drug, if not more, be achieved with no side-effects with a non-drug therapy?
- Can outcomes be significantly improved following this process, as compared to drugs?
In search of answers to these questions – arrive digital therapeutics:
In search of answers to the above questions, a number of tech savvy whiz kids. dared to chart an uncharted frontier by asking themselves: Is it possible to treat a disease with a software – having no side-effects, but providing better cost effectiveness and treatment outcomes to patients?
Today, with the signs of healthy growth of the seed – sown with the above thoughts, ushers in – yet another game changing pathway for disease treatment. The quest for success of these pathfinders can benefit both – the drug innovators and also the generic players, in equal measure, besides patients. Digital therapeutics is an upshot of this pursuit.
Its ‘purpose’ outlines – why it’s one of the most exciting areas in digital space:
The Digital Therapeutics Alliance well captures the purpose of digital therapeutics, as, “Improving healthcare quality, outcomes, and value through optimizing the use and integration of digital therapeutics.”
What do digital therapeutics actually do?
There are several, but quite similar descriptions of digital therapeutics. For example, Deloitte described digital therapeutics as software products used in the treatment of medical conditions, enabling patients to take greater control over their care and are focused on delivering clinical outcomes. It also highlights, ‘digital therapeutics are poised to shift medicine’s emphasis from physically dosed treatment regimens to end-to-end disease management based on behavioral change.’
Digital therapeutics offers all positives of a drug and more:
In indications where digital therapy is approved and available, the new approach offers all positive attributes of an equivalent drug, with no side-effect. There isn’t any need of its physical administration to patients, either. Deloitte elucidated this point very aptly: “As software and health care converge to create digital therapeutics, this new breed of life sciences technology is helping to transform patient care and deliver better clinical outcomes.” More importantly, all this can be made available for better compliance and at a cheaper cost in many cases.
For example, according to the article published in the MIT Technology Review on April 07, 2017, carrying the title ‘Can Digital Therapeutics Be as Good as Drugs?’: “Some digital therapeutics are already much cheaper than average drug. At Big Health, people are charged $ 400 a year, or about $ 33 a month to use the insomnia software. The sleeping pill Ambien, by contrast, costs $ 73 for six tablets of shut-eye.”
Two basic types of digital therapeutics:
The Digital Therapeutics Alliance also underscores: “Digital therapeutics rely on high quality software to deliver evidence-based interventions to patients to prevent, manage, or treat disease.” It further elaborates: “They are used independently or in concert with medications, devices, or other therapies to optimize patient care and health outcomes.” In line with this description, the above MIT Technology Review article, as well, classifies digital therapy into two basic categories:
- For medication replacement
- For medication augmentation
It also says that the digital therapy for sleep (sleep.io), belongs to the first category, making sleeping pill most often unnecessary and with outcomes better than those of tablets. Whereas, the second category includes various disease specific software apps that improve patient compliance with better self-monitoring, just as co-prescription of drugs.
Nonetheless, the same MIT article gave a nice example of ‘medication augmentation’ with digital therapy. The paper mentioned, Propeller Health – a digital company, has inked a deal with GlaxoSmithKline for a ‘digitally guided therapy’ platform. The technology combines GSK’s asthma medications with Propeller Health made sensors that patients attach with their inhalers to monitor when these are used. Patients who get feedback from the app, end up using medication less often, the study reported.
The first USFDA approved digital therapy:
Let me give one example each of the launch of ‘medication replacement’ and ‘medication augmentation’ digital therapy, although there were other similar announcements.
- On November 20, 2018, by a media release, Sandoz (Novartis) and Pear Therapeutics announced the commercial availability of reSET – a substance use disorder treatment that was the first software-only digital therapeutic cleared by the US-FDA, for medical prescriptions.
- Closely followed by the above, on December 21, 2019, Teva Pharmaceutical announced US-FDA approval for its ProAir Digihaler for treatment and prevention of bronchospasm. Scheduled for launch in 2019, it is the first and only digital inhaler with built-in sensors that connects and transmit inhaler usage data to a companion mobile application, providing insights on inhaler use to asthma and COPD patients – for prevention and better treatment of the disease.
Many other projects on digital therapeutics are fast progressing.
Stressing a key importance of digital therapeutics in chronic disease conditions, McKinsey article of February 2018, titled ‘Digital therapeutics: Preparing for takeoff’, also underlines: ‘Digital therapeutics tend to target conditions that are poorly addressed by the healthcare system today, such as chronic diseases or neurological disorders.’
It also, further, emphasized that digital therapeutics can often deliver treatment more cheaply than traditional therapy, by demonstrating their value in clinical terms. It illustrated the point with US-FDA’s approval for a mobile application that helps treat alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine addiction, well-supported by clinical trial data. The results showed 40 percent of patients using the app abstained for a three-month period, compared with 17.6 percent of those who used standard therapy alone.
I now come back to where I started from. The pharma ball game is changing, and that too at a faster pace.Ensuring and demonstrating better treatment outcomes for patients – both for patented drugs and the generic ones, will increasingly be the cutting-edge to gain market share and grow the business. Thus, leveraging technology to its fullest is no longer just an option for pharma companies. The evolution of digital therapeutics as a game changer, vindicates the point.
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.