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Health Wearables: Why Pharma Should Be Involved and How

Julie Levine

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Digital technology’s advances in portability, size minimization, location awareness, movement and other sensors, and improvements in cloud-based computing technologies — coupled with the push toward the quantification of healthcare formalized by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — are combining to superstorm proportions. This trend is culminating with health wearables, which are pushing the erudite concept of the “quantified self” into everyday life.

This movement may entirely change the focus of the healthcare industry. Pharmaceutical companies have a golden opportunity to participate with their wealth of expertise and understanding and their ability to reach and serve various segments of the health space.


Recently, the MIT Technology Review said, “If industry forecasts are accurate, we should expect that by 2015 more than 500 million people will use mobile health applications.” The authoring professor noted that those interviewed “envision a future in which Americans are always just one click away from a real-time digital dashboard tracking the impact of their lifestyle choices on their health. Although this vision wasn’t included in the Affordable Care Act, it will shape the way the health and technology industries respond to the new legislation.”

“… we should expect that by 2015 more than 500 million people will use mobile health applications.”

How will the healthcare industries respond to this new paradigm? Specifically, what will the pharmaceutical industry do to address these new needs and interests? Pharma has discussed the need to focus “beyond the pill” for many years, but the difference, as of 2014, is that there are now specifics and requirements attached to that need: ACA has put deadlines and deliverables to the goal of measurably improving clinical outcomes.

From lowering blood pressure to quitting smoking, reducing panic attacks to managing diabetes, wearables enable patients to monitor their own health with far more specificity and greater ease than ever before. A small group of aficionados has been intrigued by this concept — the “quantified self” — for some time. However, the ACA has spurred on the development of vast numbers of new wearables, moving personal-data tracking from a geek hobby to a sensible part of daily life made easy for the average person.

Not only is it increasingly easy, but it’s increasingly important. Physicians are held to outcomes, so apps and wearables are starting to be prescribed, as doctors encourage their patients to actively partner in their healthcare.


The impact that wearables will have on healthcare, and therefore on pharma, is difficult to overstate — though it won’t be immediate and its specifics will change greatly over the next decade.

It’s useful to compare wearables with mobile phones in the 2000-2010 decade. At the start of that period, mobile phones were not unheard of, but were often still considered a luxury good or only useful for those in special situations. By the end of the decade, users had tripled (source)

Wearables are projected to make the same transition — from high-tech curiosity to required appendage — that mobile phones did, but in a far shorter time. Already, we’re seeing phone commercials like Apple’s “Strength” (right) that focus entirely on the health-wearable potential of the device, with nary a mention of actual telephone capabilities. Not only have mobile phones already broken barriers to entry, but also external incentives are now even stronger. Consumers don’t need to become accustomed to toting and interacting with hand-held tech; it’s normal. And while accessibility made employers quick to encourage mobile phone use, wearables will soon be championed by peers, caregivers, physicians, insurers and employers — a difficult chorus to ignore.

Technology companies have seen the potential of this market. Managed care organizations have been quick to grasp its promise, and patients are intrigued. As the MIT Technology Review noted, “…the right use of technology could make health tracking as addictive as other aspects of our digital lives.”

Pharma is known for being risk-averse, but wearables are an area where the greatest risk is being left behind.

Pharma already understands the potential of another tech trend: big data. Improved predictive analyses, from research molecules to physician prescribing, are introducing ever-greater efficiencies. Wearables can be both a source and a translator for big data. First, they can be a source for aggregated data about health conditions. Second, they can translate big data into real-time, meaningful advice upon which patients can act.

Budgets are tighter and trust in pharma is smaller than in generations past. Drug prices, recalls and other negative events have shaken consumer faith. But if drug manufacturers successfully expand into true healthcare companies, improving outcomes by thinking more broadly than only a pill or a drip, that’s when opinions and, more importantly, patients’ lives change. Particularly for patients living with chronic or multiple conditions, true healthcare is invaluable.

Healthcare professionals (HCPs) are held accountable in new and increasing ways for their patients’ outcomes. Wearable tech is a golden opportunity to simply, yet effectively, go beyond the pill – to offer HCPs elegantly easy, low-risk solutions to improve their patients’ lives.  

Some patients and healthcare professionals are already eagerly embracing this concept, using wearables and even prescribing mobile apps. It’s an area of healthcare in flux, though.

Some physicians, like popular blogger Dr. Kevin Pho, remain skeptical. Other doctors are prescribing wearables and apps. Surveys show that 90 percent of patients with a chronic condition would use a prescribed app. Apps are being approved by regulators and reimbursed by insurers. The UK’s NHS has already actively directed physicians to start prescribing from their vetted app store.

As the New York Times quoted one mobile health executive recently, prescriptions are taking new form: “ … pills can also be information … pills can also be connectivity.” This is the paradigm shift: Pharma can provide professionals with solutions for patients to not only swallow, inject or apply, but also to read, watch, listen, play and interact.

“ … pills can also be information … pills can also be connectivity.”

There is need, desire, interest and conviction, and it’s coming from all directions: patients, healthcare professionals, regulators, insurers. What’s missing is a trusted source. This is pharma’s opportunity.


Technology companies are jumping into wearables with both feet. From Apple’s HealthKit to Google Fit, from an abundance of Kickstarter projects to Amazon’s new Wearables store, it’s easy to find examples of traditionally non-healthcare entities working to integrate with health wearables.

Tech companies may have their own capabilities, but they don’t have what pharma does: literally centuries of understanding the patient, the caregiver, the healthcare professional and the regulations. Pharma understands:

  • What will make the biggest difference to patient care; what the financial, emotional and intellectual barriers will be, how to address them, and how to measure the success of these efforts
  • How to work with the varied players throughout the healthcare universe: hospitals and health systems, formularies and managed care organizations, GPs and specialists, emergency and parahealth professionals — how to navigate their worlds, how to speak to them, what will convince them
  • The necessity of integration with the processes, procedures, guidelines, regulations and laws of the industry. Comfort and familiarity with regulations is an important differentiator for pharma. Even one of Google’s cofounders, Sergey Brin, was quoted in Forbes recently as saying, “Generally, health is just so heavily regulated. It’s just a painful business to be in.”
  • The ins and outs of disease prevention and treatment and what the important measurements of success are along those paths.
“Generally, health is just so heavily regulated. It’s just a painful business to be in.”-Sergey Brin, Google cofounder

Pharma has a foundation of solid bedrock on which to build, and opportunities for next steps and integration include:

  • Partnering up — Find experienced agency and technology collaborators (like Intouch, of course!) who fully understand and empathize with patient needs, the user experience, and the opportunities within the wearables movement.
  • Creating allies — It’s also worth exploring mutually beneficial partnerships with existing wearable companies focused on the condition categories in which your products treat. Each entity — pharma and wearable company — brings valuable knowledge to the discussion, whether its data, regulatory understanding, access to patients or the device itself.
  • Integrating — What type of pharma product or service will combine an app with a wearable to improve a patient outcome? Consumers will shortly come to expect this utility as HealthKit and Fit make it feasible. What apps does your company provide today to consumers or HCPs that would be exponentially more useful if integrated with a wearable health device?
  • Moving quickly — Work with a few top partners to innovate rapidly, “fail fast,” and fast-track projects ahead of the competition (health as well as tech companies).
  • Initiating think tanks — Consider choosing a select group of physicians with which to brainstorm and prototype advanced concepts in real-time in an Innovation Lab setting.
  • Looking to the patients who need it most — As Harvard professor Dr. Daniel Sands noted this spring, current users “ … are early adopters, and are not necessarily the patients who would benefit most from these devices … patients who live sedentary lifestyles and make unhealthy choices are unlikely to buy a digital fitness device today.” It’s pharma’s opportunity to focus on the patients who need wearables the most and plan for their tomorrow.
  • Connecting HCPs and patients — How can pharma offer tools that get HCPs closer to their patients? Wearables offer the potential for data tracking, gathering, aggregating, analyzing, reporting and predicting — invaluable to today’s busy HCP.
  • Thinking in terms of a “pill+” lifecycle — Imagine a clinical trial powered to demonstrate the efficacy of a complete “beyond the pill” package, combining product and wearable to improve compliance and adherence … and even affect morbidity and even mortality rates.

Wearable technologies that will save and improve lives are undoubtedly on the horizon. The question is simply: Will pharma rise to the opportunity at hand?



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