Digital Health and Pharma: The Beginnings of a Great Relationship?

On April 25th, the Brigham Innovation Hub Speaker Series will bring together a panel of pharma experts to discuss the current relationship between pharma and digital health, and how it will evolve in the future. The panel will include Rachel Sha from Sanofi, Luba Greenwood from Roche, Aman Bhandari from Merck, and Matt Schumacher from UCB; moderated by Naomi Fried from Health Innovation Strategies.

Before setting up the stools and microphones, we wanted to hear what the panel members already had on their minds. Pulling from their work and personal experiences, they shared with us some of their views and visions on the relationship between digital health and the pharma industry.

We decided to start from the beginning: the challenges.

Coming from big pharma, what challenges are you seeing with participating in digital?

Sanofi’s Sha believes that the biggest challenge thus far is being able to take incredible innovation and successfully scale it:

“Start-ups have been able to generate impressive results in pilot or early commercial experience as they are able to engage deeply with the customer, identify insights and learnings and rapidly incorporate [them] into their solution.  However, expanding it to a wider patient group or geographic scope, for example, has been challenging. Pharma needs to decide if they are willing to accept greater risk, and partner early with start-ups to refine solutions and business models, or prefer to see solutions validated before meaningfully partnering.”

According to UCB’s Schumacher, some of the challenges may derive from the overall understanding of digital health:

“‘Digital health’ is a broad term with so many possibilities. This creates a big challenge for pharma companies that are traditionally focused on development of new therapeutic solutions. Time and attention is required to find the specific intersection where digital health will amplify patients’ experience and outcomes. It’s a big ocean of digital opportunities, and it’s difficult to decide what is best and how to engage digital health and technology. Speed of drug and digital development are not completely aligned, so we have to find new ways to combine the two.”

Others, including Roche’s Greenwood, see challenges coming from the already saturated industry of digital health:

“Companies are often overwhelmed by the field of digital health. From digital and med device companies to biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, there is a struggle to cut through the noise of numerous digital offerings in order to identify a clear corporate digital health strategy. With nearly $8 billion invested in over 500 digital health companies in 2016 alone, the inflow of ideas and opportunities is growing rapidly.”

What do you think is the biggest opportunity in digital health for pharma?

“Frankly, [the biggest opportunity is] the power of technology to improve what we do as a pharma enterprise”, stated Sha. “Meaning drug discovery, development, commercialization, and access is significant. Additionally, the opportunity to improve outcomes, reduce cost, with a better patient/provider experience can be achieved through digital health solutions as well.”

We also had the chance to speak with our moderator, Naomi Fried, on what she believed were some of the biggest opportunities with this partnership.

“One of the biggest and most exciting opportunities for digital health in pharma is to combine drugs with digital tools for a “total patient solution”. I call it the drug and digital—DND—approach. In the future, pharmaceutical companies will deliver greater value to their patients by providing clinical-grade apps and digital support services to enhance and extend the impact of their drugs This will be a win for patients, providers, and payers. Pharma companies that embrace the DND revolution will win market share while driving patient engagement.”

What is the best case you've seen of collaboration between digital health and the pharma industry?

Schumacher weighed in on “Digital Solutions”:

“Digital solutions, which are integrated into everyday life, will redefine how we all participate in our health. Many solutions will be transparent to the informed patient; digital health must meet the patient on their terms, providing specific and relevant health connections. I have seen solutions that change the healthcare experience that have the greatest opportunity for early impact and sustained outcomes.”

So what is really next?

According to Greenwood, “The reality is that by 2030, there will be clear digital health leaders, and the need to articulate, create, and execute on a long-term strategy in the digital health space is evermore present today.”

Will pharma be ready to take on this new relationship with digital health? Will the opportunities be worth the risks? And how will organizations like Brigham Health partner with pharma to accelerate this work?

Join the conversation and register today for the iHub Speaker Series: Beyond the Pill, on April 25th.