Pharmaceutical Companies Need to Jump into Digital Therapeutics. Now.


The digital health landscape can still feel a bit like the wild west these days.

There are many great ideas out there, and plenty of great companies doing impressive innovative work. But because many of these solutions are not clinically validated, it is also increasingly difficult to sort through which solutions are actually driving behavioral change for consumers.

For me, this begs a big question: What will the next generation of digital therapeutics and diagnostics look like, and how can we solve the validation problem?

The Challenge: Validation

First, I should back up and talk a bit about the challenge of validating efficacy of digital tools, as I think it’s one of the next big steps in digital therapeutics. I was recently in a round table discussion with folks from a number of the nation’s largest health care systems, and many of those providers agreed that they had little time and no resources with which to determine which solutions they should actually trust, it was simply overwhelming.

For example, there are hundreds of mental health apps on the market right now, but how do you make sense of all those choices? How does a provider determine which one to recommend to a patient?  Even solutions from the “big companies” are not always clinically validated nor proven to cause actual health behavior changes, either (Lumosity, for example, was recently was fined $2 million by the FTC for not being able to scientifically back up their claims).  At the moment, in this market flooded with digital health solutions, there is no one streamlined way to determine which solutions are clinically sound.  

The Early Winner: Point Solutions

In digging deeper, you’ll also find that most of the current, available digital health solutions are “point solutions.” They measure just one, or possibly a few things, with intense focus: for example, many popular apps measure blood sugar, heart rate, or emotional state through voice.

This is a well discussed improvement in patient care.  Previously, providers only measured the patient’s state at a single point in time (for example, at the doctor’s office). But now, providers are able to collect longitudinal, consistent measurements of a patient’s state in many small pieces, which is powerful.

The Opportunity: Combining Data from Solutions to Create a Holistic View

The next challenge, then, goes beyond just collecting data from point solutions, and it even goes beyond just understanding that data. Now, we have the opportunity to take all of this longitudinal data from multiple inputs and digital biomarkers, use it to create a holistic view of patient care and health, and to begin to make correlations between that data and disease state.

Then (and only then) can we begin to create therapeutic, diagnostic, and prophylactic tools, using data and insights to make true, validated recommendations that rely on what we know from large quantities of landscape data. These new tools will hopefully motivate behavioral change and will ideally influence health outcomes as well.  This is where we could start to realize the promise of digital health, where digital tools could truly complement, or perhaps even replace traditional medicine, maybe even doctors and pharmaceuticals themselves!

The Opportunity: Pharmaceutical Industry Action

Who can create these products and bring them to market?

Research institutions are well equipped for studies and clinical validation, but they typically have short, focused time horizons, and/or lack the commercialization and distribution capabilities. Payers, who are chomping at the bit for solutions, have other priorities and challenges to address, typically lack the capabilities to develop clinically validated tools, and their solutions would be proprietary to their member base.

I believe that pharmaceutical companies, in particular, are in a unique position to develop and commercialize the holistic solutions we need. They have the capabilities of clinical research, commercialization, distribution, the financial resources, and importantly, the appetite that’s needed for this kind of work. The life cycles required to fully develop and validate digital therapeutics can be long and arduous, but pharmaceutical companies have the ability to stay the course.

So in my mind, the next step has got to be pharma. Not only does it fit with the mission of most Pharma companies, who are already looking to create digital therapies, but in ten years, digital therapies will complement, if not replace many traditional pill-based therapies. If pharmaceutical companies don’t move now, they will be late to the game. 

What’s Next?

Change is never easy, and this will require some adaptation by traditional pharmaceutical companies. Some are more digitally mature, but others are just beginning their first digital initiatives, and still experimenting. No matter where they are, though, this work needs to be a focused area in the coming year, as creating a clinically validated, comprehensive tool could take years to develop. We’ve got to start now.

The roadmap is likely to begin with a focus on these things:

  • A research-driven approach. This involves talking to patients, caregivers, and providers, to better understand the needs of each player in the ecosystem, and understanding more about the patient than typical.  
  • The use of proven behavior change principles. If these solutions are to stick, it will be important that anything designed hit the sweet spot of what a patient needs. We’ve recently published a white paper on this topic – you can download it here.
  • Agility. Unlike drug development, digital therapeutics gives the opportunity to roll out a small solution, learn, and iterate quickly to optimize the solution.
  • Partnerships.  Pharma companies can’t do it alone. They will need to partner with providers for both validation and patient access, and  with payers to drive reimbursement and provider adoption.  And they need the innovators to bring best-of-breed solutions to be integrated into digital therapeutics and diagnostics.

It’s a wild, wild west out there in the land of digital health, but pharmaceutical companies need to prepare and get ready to jump in. At Medullan, we are are digging in and excited about the massive impact this new field of innovation will have for our clients and the patients they serve – we hope this post is sparking your interest too.


 To read more on this subject, check out this blog post by our VP of Platform Solutions, Ryan Rossier, entitled: “Why the Digital Therapeutics market is poised for epic takeoff”.

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