The iPad's Future in Pharma

Jan 22, 2014 9:00 AM ET
Campaign: PharmExec 2014

The iPad's Future in Pharma

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The first phase of development for any revolutionary new technology often looks a lot like what came before. The earliest cars resembled horse-drawn carriages; computer keyboards even today use the same layout as typewriters did in the 19th century. In some cases it takes many generations — human generations, not technology generations — to explore the full potential of a revolutionary new technology

And so it is with the iPad. Three years into the Apple-led tablet era, very few developers are treating the iPad as anything more than a glorified touchscreen operating in a vacuum. Pharmaceutical marketers are particularly guilty of this; the considerable majority of our industry's work on tablets consists of "computerized" presentations for sales reps to show to physicians. Such presentations often do take full advantage of the visual capabilities of the medium, with impressive images, multiple pathways of information, and ways for the rep to customize the presentation to each individual.

But physicians don't want pretty pictures; they want help — ways to improve how they practice medicine, the efficiency of how they treat patients, and how they can affect outcomes. And the iPad is not just a visual medium; it is an interactive medium — and interactive in more than just the ability to touch different arrows to see different pictures. The confluence of these two facts offers pharmaceutical marketers what may be their greatest opportunity of the digital age: the opportunity to offer tools that use the full capacity of the iPad to help physicians do their jobs, and help patients stay healthy.

Interactive, not just visual

As of the end of August, the No. 2 paid health and fitness app in the Apple App Store was Smart Alarm Clock, an app that monitors sleep cycles and records disturbances during the night while also calculating the right time to wake up the user to avoid under- or oversleeping.

Now, imagine if a sales rep on a top sleep aid brand, at the end of his 90-second iPad detail full of fancy 3D images and impressive statistics, could say, "Doc, I'd like to show you a tool that your patients can use to help monitor their sleep," and reveals his brand's very own Smart Alarm Clock. Voila — here's a digital tool that patients can use to better understand their condition — and, even better, generate data for the physician so she can adjust treatment accordingly.

You'll have to imagine hard, because this isn't happening. Smart Alarm Clock wasn't developed by some billion-dollar insomnia brand; it came from, a website that specializes in mobile fitness applications.

Why isn't this happening? Because for all our big talk about digital and mobile, we in pharma are still thinking like carriage engineers trying to design cars. Drawing from decades of experience communicating to physicians with more primitive visual media, we have been quick to push the iPad to its visual limits with in-depth MOAs and seamless multidimensional presentations. But the difference between those presentations and the old leave-behind is one of form, not substance; we're just using a more robust platform to communicate the same information to physicians.

The interactive capabilities of the iPad and its brethren permit much more than that; they enable us to present tools of real value to physicians and patients. Going far beyond monitoring sleep patterns, an iPad could actually change how patients are diagnosed or even tracked for disease progression. In Parkinson’s disease, for example, a physician could use the iPad to monitor the progression and severity of tremors — and presence in the office would not be required. Instead of depending solely on their own judgment against a decidedly subjective set of written guidelines, physicians could use the iPad's motion sensitivity to test against a measurable range of scores; with sufficient participation over time, this approach could transform the way Parkinson's, or other movement-disorder related diseases, is categorized within the medical community. The iPad and devices like it may completely rewrite physician treatment guidelines.

And why can't an iPad become the centralized portal for each patient's management of their diseases, medications, and medical records, tethered to physicians through EMR, to pharmacies, even directly to payors? Marketers often speak of the closed loop; apps like this could offer a closed loop for patients and physicians, with reward systems that could provide discounts on related products or even lower insurance premiums a la the Progressive Snapshot model. On top of the value-add for patients and physicians, think of the impact that such a system could have on patient compliance, and thus a brand's bottom line.

With the current

Nearly every trend of significance in the pharmaceutical marketplace is pushing us in exactly this direction. Are overworked physicians closing their doors to sales reps? They might feel differently if those sales reps were bringing them tools to reduce their workload. Are digitally savvy patients looking for better ways to maintain their lifestyles while managing their diseases? They would jump at the chance to be able to monitor their "numbers" without going to see the doctor, or check their records with a swipe or two. Are payors demanding hard evidence of effectiveness? The iPad in the hands of a patient offers the capacity to quantify disease progression to a level of detail that even the most impressive device in any physician's office cannot match, since it can be in the patient's hand at any time. A solution to many of the industry's biggest challenges has fallen straight into our lap — if only we are clever enough to take advantage.

We believe that the great pharmaceutical brands of the 21st century will not necessarily be the ones that are the most effective against their target disease, or do the best job of getting brilliant creative in front of physicians, but the ones that offer the best combination of efficacy and value-added tools for the physician and the patient. In a marketplace filled with "me-too"isms — follow-on products only marginally "better" than their predecessors, multiple drugs from the same classes, and so on — the day will soon come, if it hasn't already, when pharmaceutical brands will be judged more for what comes wrapped around the pill than for the pill itself. So any brand that aims to be great can no longer depend on its sterling trial data; it must find other ways to provide value to its constituencies. And right in front of us — already in the hands of most of our sales forces as well as large numbers of physicians and patients — is a tool whose interactive capabilities seem designed to meet this very need. The technical skill to develop interactive health support apps exists — hence Smart Alarm Clock — but for now our industry's will is lacking. Or perhaps what is lacking is imagination — the ability to see the boundless opportunity that lies just beyond our tiny sandbox of promoting traditional messages on a fancier screen.

We are waiting.

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