Drug companies are dipping into health technology—or at least skimming the surface. Bristol-Myers Squibb is a new player at this week’s Health 2.0 matchmaking conference which seeks to pair health technology start-ups with deep-pocketed partners. The pharma company, which is a sponsor, says it is “interested in companies pursuing innovation/opportunities related to the digital workflow of health care providers, the role of big data/real world data in health care, and how social media will enable patients and health care providers to find appropriate health information and connect with peer communities.” Bristol-Myers is interested, among other things, in medication adherence.
“Pharma is showing a lot of interest, and trying to figure out how to deal with it”, says Marco Smit, president of Health 2.0 Advisors. Through its various conferences, Health 2.0 has had its pulse on emerging trends in the growing health technology community since 2007. At a Health 2.0 event called “Developer Challenge,” Novartis asked a team of developers to formulate a solution that allows patients to better manage their cardiovascular health, such as blood pressure. The winner, announced in March, was Sensei, Inc., which developed a mobile health app with a personalized education, nutrition, and fitness program.
Glaxo pops up in a Health 2.0 market monitor report, released today. In January, it launched a free mobile phone-based asthma management app which helps patients track their symptoms, and scores them on how well they’re doing it. Glaxo sells the asthma drug Advair.
Smit says that some smaller pharma companies are trying to do the smart thing by differentiating themselves on how they engage with patients. One example is Belgian biopharma UCB which developed the blockbuster allergy drug Zyrtec, and sells epilepsy drugs. UCB has been ahead of the curve by partnering two years ago with online patient community site PatientsLikeMe to form a community for people suffering from epilepsy. More than a quarter patients reported an improvement in sticking to their drug regimen, as a result.
Still, despite the fact that pharma can be a natural partner for health technology companies, it has been noticeably behind other industries, namely telecom and health insurance. Companies, such as Aetna, UnitedHealth Group, and AT&T are accelerating their partnerships and initiatives. According to Health 2.0’s report, during the first two months of 2012, AT&T announced it will launch a beta version of the AT&T Developer Center ForHealth to help developers integrate disparate health systems; it also launched a tablet-based management service for health care providers. UnitedHealth’s Optum plans a beta launch next month of a cloud-based platform that facilitates the exchange of electronic health data across multiple devices and locations. UnitedHealth also launched Health4Me, a mobile app that allows its members to connect with nurses, locate nearby physicians in their network, and access their health benefits information.
David Chase, the CEO of patient portal start-up Avado, is skeptical of what he sees is a half-hearted foray by pharma into health technology. In a recent Forbes post, he writes: “While the [app] challenges are a step in the right direction, they are doing the equivalent of providing polite applause from the stands and giving the gladiators (aka startups) some modest rewards for their efforts.” David Shaywitz, a pharmaceutical executive, has countered Chase on Forbes, stating: “I imagine the most effective applications will find a way to complement and enhance traditional therapeutics, rather than position themselves as “alt apps.””
At least the start-ups are not wasting time. Check out these natural partners to pharma: Happtique, mentioned by Chase. It plans to launch a mobile app that enables doctors to suggest health apps to their patients. See also First Life Research, which mines patient-generated content about drugs, and uses it to provide insight into medication use, including why patients switch drugs, and their concerns regarding use and costs. “They can bring a whole new level of innovation to how pharma understands what is really happening to patients who take their drugs,” says Smit.