The music industry did not go gently into the 21st century. Over the decades, it weathered format changes from records to eight-tracks to cassettes to CDs. But the introduction of digital music files that could be streamed, shared and downloaded was something else entirely. As words like piracy, Napster and iTunes entered our lexicon and set a new industry milestone, power changed hands. Who would have guessed that a couple of college students and a niche computer company could change the recording industry? But so it was, and labels and equipment manufacturers were left flailing in the wake of innovation.

While faster, cheaper access to a wider selection was broadly positive for consumers, record labels felt that they lost money, artists felt that their work was not compensated and manufacturers found demand waning. Essentially, their industry was disrupted.

Similarly, Uber’s digitally driven, efficient and customer-centric solution to paid transportation recently sent its industry into upheaval. The term “uberfy” has unofficially become synonymous with disruption.

These tales are instructive because we see a similar shift in pharmaceuticals and healthcare. Disruption is happening as the industry largely watches from the sidelines. Let’s look at a few examples.

  • Mango Health is an independent company specializing in applying gamification principles to healthcare apps. They’ve had a successful (soon to be clinically proven) adherence app on the market for several years, but, according to Tech Crunch, they are expanding to track hydration, activity, and glucose and blood pressure monitoring. They also have plans for an Apple Watch app soon.
  • News got out last week that Google is developing a cancer-detecting pill and has just been awarded a patent for a wristband that could send energy to detect — or even someday destroy — cancer cells. They caution that they’re at least five years away from FDA approval, but still, it sounds more like Star Trek than anything in the average big pharma pipeline.
  • 23andMe, the headline-making genetic startup owned by Google, has recently announced that it’s going into drug development, headed by the former head of drug discovery at Genentech.

Adding these to the widely discussed Apple watch and open-source ResearchKit, it’s plain to see that tech-focused health initiatives are making a splash with a user-centric technology mindset. Mango Health, as TechCrunch says, “has been taking the behavioral mechanics that make games addictive and applying them toward more intractable problems in the world of healthcare.” Medical Design Technology, talking of Google, put it simply: “The fight against cancer isn’t limited to just the healthcare and medical device industries.” And it isn’t just pharma dropping the ball. Industry pundit “PharmaGuy” recently posted a new report showing that a majority of health insurance providers are failing when it comes to mHealth app efforts.

Tech startups are in healthcare in full force, and their work is very nearly reaching the industry’s long-held “beyond the pill” dream. What are traditional healthcare players to do? Well, as the saying goes, they need to lead, follow, or get out of the way.

  • Lead: Recruit talent and create competitive tools and services that are elegant, engaging, low-cost and results-driven. Like Apple, help reshape an industry.
  • Follow: Acquire the best-performing apps and reorganize business models so that these offerings are not subsumed under Rx brand efforts. Like Sony, find ways to remain important.
  • Get out of the way: Take too long or be too ineffective at either of the above and become relegated to the position of medication manufacturer, secondary to broader wellness services. Like Memorex, become marginally relevant subsidiaries of larger manufacturers.

Will pharma be the Apple, Sony or Memorex of its own story? Stay tuned.