MedCity Influencers, Health Tech

Covid-19 is bringing digital therapeutics to the forefront of medicine

This burgeoning industry has been propelled to the forefront of medicine with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which shined a light on the need for innovative treatment options that can be used at home from your phone or tablet

In medicine, we’re getting real-time experience with what many believed was an inevitable but potentially distant future – fully digital treatments.

In what may have sounded like a futuristic scenario mere months ago, doctors today can prescribe a video game treatment for their patients. Children with ADHD are now “playing” their medicine thanks to an emerging category of medicine – digital therapeutics (DTx). In June 2020, the industry experienced a watershed moment when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cleared the first-ever prescription video game. At the end of 2020, a mobile sleep app received FDA clearance to treat nightmares caused by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These and other recent milestones in creative and innovative products are paving the way for a new pillar of medicine. Patients and doctors are already recognizing the value of DTx on the market. And with increased awareness of and experience with these unique treatments, we can expect a massive increase in demand.

This burgeoning industry has been propelled to the forefront of medicine with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which shined a light on the need for innovative treatment options that can be used at home from your phone or tablet. DTx not only meet that need, but importantly they meet the new expectations of patients: control, flexibility, and seamless integration.

Why did Covid-19 alter the path for DTx acceptance and adoption, and how will it position the industry to grow in 2021?

Acceleration driven by Covid-19
Consumer expectations of always-on access and tech-savvy solutions have transformed the leisure, retail, and finance industries among others – but medicine is one area people begrudgingly accept as “the way it has to be.” However, the pandemic massively accelerated expectations around the most critical aspects of people’s lives, inciting a more tech-forward approach to medicine. The broad and lasting shift in patient expectations can be attributed to two specific drivers:

  1. Covid-19 demanded convenience and accessibility of digital health; DTx perfectly fit: When the pandemic hit, digital healthcare went from novel to necessary. Covid-19 moved healthcare from the doctor’s office to the living room with many patients opting into digital healthcare solutions, such as telemedicine or ordering prescription refills online. This inherently increased acceptance of digital health and introduced people to a simplified experience that demonstrated healthcare efficiency is possible.

This demand for quicker and easier approaches to healthcare isn’t going away. Once consumers get a taste of efficiency, they’ll continue to demand it. Just look to Amazon’s decision to integrate pharmaceutical delivery into its rapid home delivery revolution. Patients are asking how to most efficiently access their medicine.

But DTx offer more than just rapid access; they meet patients on their own terms and engage them in their care.  DTx are accessed from anywhere, personalized and automatically adaptable, and rich with data to foster meaningful conversations with the patient, caregiver, and providers. In that way, DTx are a key new therapeutic pillar answering an important and futuristic question in medicine: How is my treatment tailored for me and my life?

  1. Long overdue attention on mental health: Not only has the pandemic increased mental health challenges across the population, it uncovered an enormous need for new treatment options. One representative example in ADHD: 90% of pediatric patients are on medication and 45% are receiving behavioral therapy; and yet, 80% are unsatisfied with their treatment or want more options. And that was before families were faced with remote schooling, limited in-person behavioral services, and the general added stress of a national pandemic and alteration of daily life. [This is based on a 2017 Akili market research.]

These data tell an important story. Drugs and therapy, while critical to the treatment of symptoms of many diseases and disorders, are often not the complete answer. DTx can be a missing piece of the puzzle, providing a new effective tool that can work in tandem with other treatment options. And importantly, DTx can deliver technologies designed to impact brain and mental processes in entirely new ways through new physiological mechanisms.

Advancement will still require clearing hurdles
Despite the proven success of some DTx solutions in clinical trials and growing awareness among consumers, the industry still needs to stretch the minds of many, including physicians and insurance providers. Realizing the full potential of DTx to transform the patient experience requires imagination and creativity, areas in which traditional medicine has been, rightfully, more conservative. The establishment of clinical trial data and regulatory successes for prescription products remain key for credibility, and now the products themselves must inspire confidence.

Early pioneering DTx represented innovative expansions of traditional medicine approaches, supporting existing treatments and digitizing medical processes and behavioral therapy. As the industry evolves, we’re seeing a second generation of products driven by new mechanisms that only technology can deploy. This gradual evolution is well-designed to shift traditional mindsets and pave the way for other DTx companies to follow, using technology to do what traditional medicine cannot.

The next frontier for DTx companies will be securing buy-in from insurance providers. We’ve already seen innovative leaders dip their toes in the water of offering DTx to members – in July 2020, UnitedHealth Group piloted a digital therapeutic designed to improve the health of patients with type 2 diabetes, and some of the earliest prescription digital therapeutics are gaining important early coverage decisions. As more providers engage broadly in digital health offerings, expect a boom of more insurance companies looking to validate digital therapeutics to support their members’ health, especially in mental and cognitive health. It’s just a matter of time before their members demand it, and providers slow to adopt will be left behind.

DTx in 2021 and beyond
In the wake of COVID-19, people are not only showing a willingness to accept DTx as valuable treatments for various conditions but beginning to demand it. Much like their favorite consumer app or game, digital medicine is becoming a source of comfort and relief, putting people in control of their treatment in a time when there are so many unknowns surrounding their health.

Computer scientist Roy Amara once observed, “we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” As is often the case with products positioned for exponential growth, initial adoption of DTx has taken time. While development has been well underway for the last decade, the payoff is just now being seen and ubiquity will happen rapidly.

It took the urgency and sense of purpose associated with Covid-19 to mobilize digital transformation within health care. Will people again accept driving to a doctor’s office and sitting in a waiting room when they’ve experienced the efficiency and comfort of an appointment via video call from their home? Will they continue to visit the pharmacy, when they can have medications proactively shipped to them at the right time?

Technology is disrupting healthcare to bring a better experience to patients, and there will be lasting changes. In the next year, doctors will more regularly turn to DTx treatments alongside traditional medication for conditions like substance abuse, ADHD and sleeplessness. How long will it be before physicians and their patients start routinely asking for and expecting digital treatment options for other mental, physical and cognitive conditions?

The beauty of DTx products is that, at their core, they give people control of their care, adapt to them, and integrate into their lives. As consumer mindsets continue to shift in 2021, so will their demand for easily accessible, personalized and enjoyable medicine. As inefficiency in medicine becomes a thing of the past, let’s embrace the future that has arrived. The experience of medicine can, in fact, be wonderful.

Photo: metamorworks, Getty Images




Eddie Martucci, CEO and Co-Founder of Akili Interactive.

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