Health IT, Pharma

Pharma is making inroads into digital health, albeit slowly

Panelists highlight Roche’s acquisition of Flatiron Health in February and use of AI/ML in drug development.

L-R: Anthony Green, Derek Bowen, Gyan Kapur and Tom Kottler

Perhaps the title of a Wednesday panel discussion at MedCity CONVERGE was an apt one: “Biopharma Gets Its Feet Wet in Digital Health.” That’s because, as panelists revealed, the industry has been a lot slower to adopt digital technology than clinics have been.

The panel featured moderator Anthony Green, vice president of Ben Franklin Technology Partners’ technology commercialization group; Derek Bowen, vice president of business development and strategy at Blackfynn; Gyan Kapur, vice president of Activate Venture Partners; and Tom Kottler, CEO of HealthPrize Technologies. CONVERGE took place in Philadelphia on Wednesday and Thursday.

“Pharma is multiple generations behind the clinic in using digital,” Kottler said. “They operate at a level of fear now, where they are painfully slow. On the commercial side, they are fearfully slow.” However, change is happening, he said, pointing to Roche’s $1.9 billion acquisition of New York-based Flatiron Health, a healthcare technology company focused on improving cancer research and patient care. Moreover, on the clinical side, drugmakers are more advanced in terms of using digital in a variety of ways, such as using data and clinical tools for research, he said.

Kapur pointed to the issue of segmentation. He recalled an email exchange with the CEO of a large pharmaceutical company, whose name “starts with J,” in which he told the executive that the company’s approach to digital health was all wrong. In response, the CEO directed Kapur to the head of the company’s innovation arm. “This happens in pharma companies – you get moved from Person A to B to C, especially on the innovation or digital side of the business,” Kapur said.

Still, there is strong potential for digital technology, even to replace pharmaceuticals in some cases, Green said. On that front, Kottler brought up disease states like depression and addiction as examples of where software could do as well as or better than drugs. But distribution remains a challenge for digital therapeutics, Kapur said. “There’s no PBM for software like there is for medicine,” he said, referring to pharmacy benefit managers, middleman organizations that manage prescription drug plans for payers.

Some drug companies are already embracing digital therapeutics. In March, Novartis partnered with Pear Therapeutics to develop digital therapeutics supplementing Novartis drugs used to treat schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis, in order to enhance the drugs’ effectiveness.

Sponsored Post

Physician Targeting Using Real-time Data: How PurpleLab’s Alerts Can Help

By leveraging real-time data that offers unprecedented insights into physician behavior and patient outcomes, companies can gain a competitive advantage with prescribers. PurpleLab®, a healthcare analytics platform with one of the largest medical and pharmaceutical claims databases in the United States, recently announced the launch of Alerts which translates complex information into actionable insights, empowering companies to identify the right physicians to target, determine the most effective marketing strategies and ultimately improve patient care.

Overall, Kottler said, pharma is fighting “tooth-and-nail” to keep its existing business model, being the only industry where prices are increased for products every six months to a year even though they aren’t improved. Indeed, much of the industry’s earnings-per-share growth comes from price increases rather than from new products or market growth, he added. Meanwhile, Bowen noted that the cost of developing drugs keeps going up, and that is where digital technology like artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) can play an important role. One way would be to use AI/ML to create patient cohorts using data sets and thus remove the placebo arm from a study, he said.

Photo: Alaric DeArment, MedCity News