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Asembia 2018: User-Friendly Urgency


Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive-06-01-2018
Volume 38
Issue 6

From AI to Alexa, experts in specialty pharma ponder the possibilities for high tech and the patient journey.

Consultants are calling it the life sciences industrialization. Others are referring to it as a pharmaceutical renaissance or revolution. No matter what you label it, the pharma industry is going through a transition and those who manufacture-or work with specialty pharmaceuticals-are feeling the pain that usually comes before a big breakthrough.

During Asembia’s Specialty Pharmacy Summit in Las Vegas last month, it was very clear that leaders realize the pharma industry needs an overhaul when it comes to certain areas of the business; but they were also very blunt about the reality of making some of those changes happen. 

One such area was drug pricing. As one executive put it, “We have hit the breaking point and passed it … the problem is that we don’t have a fix.” The reason for that, as it was explained, is that the current US healthcare system is fundamentally not set up to sustain one-time, high-cost treatments that have the potential to cure a disease. 

In some cases, the science and technology has outpaced the healthcare system. Take the role of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and technology, particularly as it relates to patient adherence, as an example. Cory Kidd, founder and CEO of Catalia Health, showed off Mabu, an intelligent, socially interactive robot whose conversations are tailored to each patient that she works with. Mabu is designed to be friendly and approachable, can make eye contact while carrying on a conversation, and is capable of simple gestures with her head and eyes. She holds a tablet-like screen to convey additional information during conversations.

Mabu was first introduced in 2015 after more than a decade of development. Yet, the robot, which Kidd says has shown in testing with patients the potential to transform drug adherence, is not widely available. One of the roadblocks comes down to a simple question, he admitted: Who is going to pay for it?

Kidd says when his company meets with executives, the first question at the end of almost every presentation is, “When does your patent expire?” Catalia Health is currently in the process of working with an insurance company to possibly include Mabu in their risk-based contracting talks. 

With popular AI technologies already becoming mainstream in other areas of a patient’s life, such as the use of Amazon’s Alexa, the pharma industry must step outside of its comfort zone and start treating patients also as consumers. Albert Thigpen, president and chief operating officer of CastiaRx, believes that pharma needs to look to other industries such as hospitality and banking to glean ideas on being more user-friendly. First, is the integration of services. 

“We can fill your MS drug, but you need to go somewhere else to get your drugs for depression filled,” Thigpen cited as an example of pharma’s lack of consumer product integration and how that trickles down to impact everything from patient adherence to rising healthcare costs. 

A simple in theory but still futuristic scenario, Thigpen proposed, what if every prescription automatically came with a programmedAlexa? Think about this: Alexa could remind people every morning to take their medication, could keep track of their doctor’s appointments, could alert patients when their prescriptions are getting low-it could provide a whole suite of services tailored to the individual and their treatment program. 

Admittedly, a great idea on paper, but how would it be implemented? How do HIPAA laws play into the situation if, for example, other people are within ear shot of Alexa? Who would pay for it? Who would program it and what information would be programmed? What if the patient has more than one health concern that spans multiple doctors and pharmacies? 

These questions are ones that Thigpen said need to start being seriously addressed and figured out by pharma, because as consumers start paying more for their healthcare out of pocket, as seen with high deductible plans, they are going to want the same consumer benefits they see in other areas of their life. 

So, how do all of these issues get solved-and the system move forward? “That’s the $64,000 question,” is how many speakers at the Asembia conference answered a version of that query when asked during Q&A at an educational session. But during a more serious conversation about the topic at the general session, which brought together a number of top thought leaders, one powerhouse trifecta kept coming up. 

“J.P. Morgan, Amazon, and Berkshire Hathaway are going to get together and figure out how to buy healthcare,” said Kent Rogers, senior vice president of industry relations for OptumRx. “That may be the catalyst that will force change.” 


Check out our YouTube channel for more Asembia coverage and to meet Mabu! 


Michelle Maskaly is Pharm Exec’s Senior Editor. She can be reached at michelle.maskaly@ubm.com and on Twitter at @mmaskaly

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