Health IT

Pharma’s digital health ambitions: Where are the opportunities and what’s hindering progress?

Looking to the future, Michael Doherty, head of strategic innovation for pharma development at Roche, said: “We are heading to a new model of drug development that will be more flexible, data will be much more continual and contextual…It won’t be dated.”

From left: Naomi Fried, Michael Doherty of Roche, Joseph Kim of Eli Lilly and Dennis Hancock of Pfizer

From left: Naomi Fried (moderator), Michael Doherty of Roche, Joseph Kim of Eli Lilly and Dennis Hancock of Pfizer

A panel discussion on the future of digital health in pharma at the MedCity CONVERGE conference in Philadelphia this week highlighted how Pfizer, Eli Lilly and Roche are using telemedicine, mobile health and connected devices as part of their drug development strategy. They also called attention to the impact of compliance on implementing these technologies.

Dennis Hancock, vice president of global connected solutions with Pfizer, noted that the company built 140 clinician and patient-facing apps last year. He said the big pharma’s digital strategy revolves around three things. He emphasized that any digital health tools it enlists needs to be useful and fill an important gap. It also needs to be something that is easily used and engages with patients and it needs to be connected.

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A Deep-dive Into Specialty Pharma

A specialty drug is a class of prescription medications used to treat complex, chronic or rare medical conditions. Although this classification was originally intended to define the treatment of rare, also termed “orphan” diseases, affecting fewer than 200,000 people in the US, more recently, specialty drugs have emerged as the cornerstone of treatment for chronic and complex diseases such as cancer, autoimmune conditions, diabetes, hepatitis C, and HIV/AIDS.

Michael Doherty, head of strategic innovation for pharma development at Roche, said he is interested in several aspects of digital health, such as using telemedicine to decentralize clinical trials and using apps to effect the outcomes of trials and reduce safety events.

Joseph Kim, senior adviser for clinical innovation at Eli Lilly, said he was intrigued by the prospect of using digital health to improve clinical trial recruitment, noting the disappointing figure that only 5 percent of people eligible for clinical trials enroll. “If you think about clinical research as a service, to do it faster you need to deliver more services to more patients… The rise of the e-patient is critical to speeding up drug development.”

On the challenge front, Kim said lack of interoperability has been “a frustration” and has stymied progress because there are lots of gaps between fragmented areas of healthcare.

As Hancock noted, the interoperability roadblocks aren’t t necessarily between institutions, but often exist within one company. He said Pfizer moved to centralize the way it shares insights between departments to overcome “self-imposed fragmentation.”

For Doherty, compliance represents the largest challenges but it wasn’t insurmountable. Although he has found senior FDA staff supportive of implementing digital health into drug development programs, he said he has found similar conversations at the lower levels much more challenging. “We cannot deviate from compliance. We have an awful lot of discussions with [the U.S. Food and Drug Administration].  Instead of pivotal trials, we find sub-studies, early stage trials or post-marketing trials to work on. We find a lot of  places to experiment but we try not to disrupt teams in our core, high delivery areas.”

Hancock added that Pfizer has worked to make itself friendlier towards healthcare entrepreneurs. The boom in digital health startups comes with its own set of challenges in that pharma companies like Pfizer find it a daunting prospect to find the right startups with which to collaborate.

Asked for his long-term outlook, Hancock said he hoped cognitive computing insights could be better managed so that they would be more timely and less overwhelming and irrelevant to what the user wants.

“Today, on one side of the street there is alert annoyance and we need to move across street to have more contextualized information without fatiguing people with insights.”

Doherty said, “We are heading to a new model of drug development that will be more flexible, data will be much more continual and contextual…It won’t be dated.”

Kim agreed with Doherty on the need for continual contextual data and added, “If I sit here and channel the spirits…We also need to allow a better opt out and opt in [system], we’ll have a great marketplace of validated wearables, maybe telehealth on demand like an Uber.” He added that hopefully it will be able to enroll clinical trials much faster so that it doesn’t take 18 months.

Photo: Meghan Uno/Breaking Media