Like the rest of the healthcare industry, the pharma industry is also grappling with lots of data, disconnects from end-users, and shifting to a digital-first experience while grappling with ongoing regulatory and privacy challenges. Actually it’s pretty much what every industry is grappling with, so the good news is that no one is getting left behind in this digital revolution.
In pharma though, the division between commercial and R&D creates both delays and lags in implementing new technology and the regulatory challenges cause specific issues in communication with both providers and patients.
Last week, I was invited to speak at Digital Pharma West about our work in voice-enabling care plans for people with Type 2 diabetes, and also how our participation in the Alexa Diabetes Challenge enabled us to engage with pharma. It was my first ‘pharma-only’ conference, so it was interesting to contrast with the provider and healthcare IT world.
If you think that there are a lot of constituents who care about digital health in provider organizations, pharma rivals that. For example, there was a discussion about the value of patient-facing digital tools in clinical trials. While everyone agreed there could be real value in both efficiencies of collecting data, and engaging patients and keeping them enrolled in trials, a couple of real barriers came up.
First the question of the impact of the digital tools on the trial. Would they create an intended impact on the outcomes, for example a placebo effect? Depending on how the “usual care condition” is delivered in a control group, it might not even be possible to use digital tools in both cohorts, which could definitely impact outcomes.
Another challenge with digital technology in randomized control trials is that technology and interfaces can change much faster than drug clinical trials. Considering that elapsed time between Phase 1 and Phase 3 trials can be years, also consider that the technology that accompanies the drug could change dramatically during that period. Even technology companies that are not “moving fast and breaking things” may do hundreds of updates in that period.
Another challenge is that technology may advance or come on the market after the initial IRB is approved, and while the technology may be a perfect fit for the study, principle investigators are hesitant to mess with study design after IRB approval.
Interestingly, while in the patient-provider world the number of channels of communication are increasing significantly with mobile, texting, web, and voice options, the number of touch points in pharma is decreasing. Pharma’s touchpoints with providers are decreasing 10% per year. While some may say that this is good due to past overreach, it does make it difficult to reach one of their constituents.
At the same time, regulations on approved content for both providers and patients means that when content has had regulatory approval, like what you might find in brochures, on websites, and in commercials, the easiest thing to do is reuse this content. However, new delivery channels like chatbots and voice don’t lend themselves well to static marketing or information content. The costs of developing new experiences may be high but the costs of delivering content that is not context or end-user aware can be even higher.
At the same time, these real-time interactive experiences create new risks and responsibilities for adverse event reporting for organizations. Interestingly, as we talk with pharma companies about delivering interactive content through the new Wellpepper Marketplace, these concerns surface, and yet at the same time, when we ask the difference between a patient calling a 1-800 line with a problem and texting with a problem there doesn’t seem to be a difference. The only possible difference is a potential increase in adverse event reporting due to ease of reporting, which could cause problems in the short term, but in the long term seems both inevitable and like a win. Many of the discussions and sessions at the conference were about social media listening programs for both patient and provider feedback, so there is definitely a desire to get and make sense of more information.
Like everyone in healthcare, digital pharma also seems to be at an inflection point, and creativity thinking about audiences, channels, and how to meet people where they are and when you need them is key.