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Big Pharma Develops Smartphone Apps to Achieve Multiple Goals

Posted Mar 01 2011 12:00am

It had never occurred to me before but I have now come to understand that pharmaceutical companies have a very large stake in having patients to take their prescribed drugs. The rate of non-compliance for prescribed drugs has repeatedly been shown to be very high. First of all and most obvious, taking one's meds boosts drug sales for the company. Secondly and less obvious, it's necessary in order to prove their efficacy if any post-market research studies are undertaken. How, then, to increase this compliance rate which is notoriously bad? It seems that the drug manufacturers are turning to smartphone apps to help solve their problem (see: Drugmakers Create Mobile Phone Apps to Track Diabetes, Cancer ). Below is an excerpt from the article

Drugmakers led by Merck & Co. and Novartis AG boosted investments in mobile phone applications and educational websites by 78 percent to get patients to take their drugs, eat right and exercise.... Pharmaceutical companies initiated 97 projects last year aimed at using information technologies to improve patient health....That compares with 124 projects started in the four prior years combined. About 41 percent of the projects were smartphone applications, an increase from 11 percent since 2006. Government-run health plans are pressuring drugmakers to prove their products are worth the prices charged, so companies are taking a greater role in making sure patients succeed with treatments. France’s 2011 budget reduced drug spending by 560 million euros ($755 million), mostly by cutting medications with marginal benefits, researchers said. The U.K. plans to set drug payments to match product benefits beginning in 2014....Health information is changing the ways drugmakers develop medicines and communicate with doctors, insurers and patients....Information from patient records is helping companies design more cost-effective clinical trials and tailor marketing materials to the people who most need them. For example, mobile phone software can help patients find clinical trials for cancer or track blood-sugar levels.

This article highlights three major reasons why Big Pharma is starting to invest in smartphone apps. If patients are non-compliant, the various drugs that are being prescribed for them may be judged to be non-efficacious in retrospective, post-market studies. This non-compliance problem has arisen in response to pressure from government-run health plans. The article provides two more reasons for companies to invest in the development of smartphone apps. The FDA is breathing down their necks about direct-to-consumer (DTC) ads on television (see: It's Time for the FDA to Prohibit Direct-to-Consumer Advertising by Pharmaceutical Companies ). If and when such ads are banned, the companies will have another trick up their sleeves -- drug marketing via smartphone apps. However, there is a downside risk to such an approach. With broadcast TV, viewers cannot (easily) edit the content that is broadcast into their homes. By way of contrast, smartphone apps need to be fun or to serve some useful purpose for the owner. Is it reasonable to assume that Big Pharma apps will achieve one or both of these goals?

Although it's theoretically possible for smartphone apps to be also used by drug companies to recruit patients for clinical trials, I believe that it would be a bit of a stretch for this to happen. It's more likely for the current system to continue with many subjects being recruited from among patients treated in academic medical centers or by community physicians for a fee. In addition, many clinical trials are also being conducted off-shore where it's easier and less expensive to recruit treatment-naive subjects (see: Outsourcing of Clincal Trials of Drugs: Bringing Product to Market Faster ).

Drugmakers Create Mobile Phone Apps to Track Diabetes, Cancer

Novartis AG Headquarters in Basel

Drugmakers led by Novartis AG and Merck & Co. boosted investments in mobile phone applications and educational websites by 78 percent. Photographer: Adrian Moser/Bloomberg

Drugmakers led by Merck & Co. and Novartis AG boosted investments in mobile phone applications and educational websites by 78 percent to get patients to take their drugs, eat right and exercise, an Ernst & Young report found.

Pharmaceutical companies initiated 97 projects last year aimed at using information technologies to improve patient health, according to the report by the New York-based consulting firm, which relied on analyst reports and press releases to reach its tally. That compares with 124 projects started in the four prior years combined. About 41 percent of the projects were smartphone applications, an increase from 11 percent since 2006.

Government-run health plans are pressuring drugmakers to prove their products are worth the prices charged, so companies are taking a greater role in making sure patients succeed with treatments. France ’s 2011 budget reduced drug spending by 560 million euros ($755 million), mostly by cutting medications with marginal benefits, researchers said. The U.K. plans to set drug payments to match product benefits beginning in 2014.

“Pharma can’t exist the way they have existed; what is surprising is the pace of change,” said Carolyn Buck Luce, Ernst & Young’s global pharmaceutical leader, in a telephone interview. “The next big change in health outcomes is behavioral change, where medicines play an important part but not the only part.”

The report didn’t include the amount of money drugmakers invested in such projects.

Changing Technology

Health information is changing the ways drugmakers develop medicines and communicate with doctors, insurers and patients, the report said. Information from patient records is helping companies design more cost-effective clinical trials and tailor marketing materials to the people who most need them. For example, mobile phone software can help patients find clinical trials for cancer or track blood-sugar levels.

Investments by drugmakers are falling behind non- pharmaceutical companies, including Fairfield, Connecticut-based General Electric Co ., Vancouver-based Telus Corp ., Canada’s third-largest wireless carrier, and International Business Machines Corp ., based in Armonk, New York, which have committed to spending at least $20 billion on health-related information services, according to Ernst & Young. Pharmaceutical companies have invested “a small fraction of that,” Luce said. Over the next decade, monitoring patient care and proving results will be an increasing part of their business, she said.

Applications created for Apple Inc .’s iPhone include a German language DiabetesMapp, which helps patients map specialists nearby, by Abbott Park, Illinois-based Abbott Laboratories ; Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-based Merck’s Vree for diabetes education and tracking of blood glucose, nutrition, and activity; and Basel, Switzerland-based Novartis’s VaxTrak to keep records of vaccinations.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tom Randall in New York at trandall6@bloomberg.net .

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net .

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