Tech Toys 2: Revenge of the App

May 01, 2010

When Apple CEO Steve Jobs heralded the age of the mobile application two years back, few had a clue what it would mean for the way people consume media, advertising, and information. For years, we've been reading about the benefits of using mobile apps in the pharmaceutical space; gallons of ink have been spilled predicting how physicians will one day meet with patients with a stethoscope in one hand and a tablet PC in the other, or how sales reps will be able to detail doctors by beaming clinical data through their Palm Pilots.

Still, those heavily hyped plans remained pilot programs, and mobility never seemed to catch on. And then came the iPhone. Within a year, the app went from concept to fruition, sparking billions of microprograms that do everything from play games to balance your checkbook. It's official: The age of the app has arrived.

According to a recent report from Manhattan Research, in 2009, more than 20 million adults used a mobile device to search for health information. That number is pretty staggering considering high-speed Internet access for phones has only really been around for a handful of years.

"There is nobody that I know [in the pharma industry] that isn't working on a concept design; an RFP ... there's definitely a great deal of interest in looking at where application fit into the communications mix," explains Ignite Health founder and CIO Fabio Gratton.

Designing the Perfect App (GETTY IMAGES / SCOTT DUNLAP)
Pharma has traditionally struggled with online adherence and compliance programs. Only a fraction of patients sign up for the Web-based programs, and too often patients view the sites as marketing ploys. With mobile applications, however, patients can access programs whenever and wherever they wish, removing the biggest challenge for pharma marketers—getting the patient to remember to access the content.

"Applications are easy to use, updatable, and mobile—they just make a lot more sense than a Web site that patients may or may not visit," says Nima Farzan, US head of marketing for vaccines and diagnostics at Novartis. "One of the neat things about the platform is that it really opens our eyes to some innovative ways to reach out to people. There was probably nothing stopping us from having a [Web] program like Vaxtrak available three years ago, but it took something like [the iPhone] to show that mobile applications can really address a problem—which in our case was to raise immunization rates."

Physician Adoption

Manhattan Research data shows that, as of this year, 72 percent of US physicians own smart phones. And that's likely to increase to 81 percent penetration by 2012. Currently, the RIM Blackberry and the Apple iPhone are neck-and-neck in terms of physician users, but Google's Android platform is creeping up, albeit slowly. PALM also has an app store, but its numbers are far from healthy.

Healthcare applications have strong potential for use among physicians, says Monique Levy, senior director of research at Manhattan Research. "You see doctors using their phones to check a drug reference or clinical data, or snacking on content. And the majority of physicians that use the Internet during patient consultation are doing so on a handheld device. Pharma is extremely interested in this. The industry gets that for physicians smart phones are a critical channel and must define what they are offering."

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