What Time is It? Time to Get a Wearable Strategy

September 1, 2015
Peter Houston

The success of Apple's iWatch is part of the apparently unstoppable rise of wearable technology, in particular health and fitness applications, writes Peter Houston.

It’s been a while since I last wrote for Pharm Exec. That’s more to do with me than the magazine and it’s certainly not any indication of sluggish activity levels in the digital pharma space.

One of the last pieces I wrote for PE was this speculative piece on wearable technology, the phantom iWatch in particular. We never did get the iWatch, but 12 months on we do have the Apple Watch.

Launched late in April 2015, Cupertino’s smartwatch made the usual Apple shaped splash in the media. From the minute CEO Tim Cook walked onstage to tell the world it had arrived, the tech and mainstream press went nuts for the newest technology must-have.

Acres and acres of Apple Watch reviews in pixels and print made sure that ordinary people, people who hadn’t pre-ordered in the six-hours before it sold out, were being advised that they would have to wait for up to a month before they would get their hands on the shiny new digital timepiece.

Six months later and manufacturing has caught up with demand – you can now actually walk into an Apple store, without an appointment, and buy one. There are no official sales figures, but analysts are saying that more than 4 million Apple Watches sold in the second quarter, grabbing up to 75 percent of the smartwatch market, way ahead of nearest rival Samsung with about 7.5 percent of the market.

So, to quote Tim Cook, the Apple Watch got off to ‘a great start’.

Part of that is undeniably down to the cultish nature of Apple’s loyal fanbase who will buy pretty much anything that the company puts a brushed aluminium case around. But it’s also part of the apparently unstoppable rise of wearable technology, and in particular health and fitness applications.

In the iWatch piece I wrote last year, I quoted The Next Web co-founder Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten who imagined any successful Apple smartwatch to be a health and medical tracking device, imagining it monitoring blood pressure, movement, temperature and a host of other parameters. He said ’Smartwatches need health data to matter’.

Boris has since gone on to admit - just after he got his new Apple Watch actually - that he would buy anything that Apple sells, but that doesn’t change the fact that digital health is becoming a big deal.

Here’s a great statistic that I found in a blog post from Intouch Solutions:  83 percent of almost 2,000 tech experts surveyed last year by the Pew Research Center and Elon University agreed the “Internet of Things” and embedded or wearable computing will have widespread and beneficial effects by 2025.

That’s a fairly decent consensus in itself, but the Intouch post goes on to deliver a really good roundup of the frenetic pace of development in the wearable healthcare market mid-2015.

It lists an FDA-approved sleep tracker, a Biogen MS trial involving the Fitbit, smart pills that track patient adherence and a Mayo clinic report that says smartphone apps, text-message reminders and other digital technologies can ‘substantially decreases secondary heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular illnesses’.

The Intouch post also says, ‘As technology marches forward, pharma cannot afford to be left behind.’ Where have I heard that before… Oh I know, in relation to Pharma and every digital innovation ever.

In an interview with Pharm Exec Editor-in-Chief William Looney, President and CEO of Philadelphia-based marketing and research firm NAXION, Susan Schwartz questioned whether pharma companies are structured to design and deliver holistic healthcare solutions?

She asked: “Is the pharmaceutical company of the future an Apple that creates environments or an Intel that powers them?”

The answer, she said, rests on the collective will of the industry to broaden its ‘innovation mandate’ and scan the environment for disruptive technologies that restructure healthcare delivery.

Earlier this year, in a news article introducing ‘Shark Tank’ style pitches at the Patient Adherence and Access Summit in Philadelphia, one of the sharks said ‘innovation is coming at rates that are infinitely faster than pharma can play at’. He saw patient monitoring as something technologists would take on.

Maybe partnering with those technologists is a good way to go. They’re driven to do cool, new disruptive things, while Pharma seem to be content just to be manufacturers.

Those are not my words. Those are the words of a technologist, Dr Ali Parsa, Founder and CEO of babylon, a UK business making it possible for patients to be treated by bona fide GPs via mobile app.

He sees the pharma industry stalled where the car industry was twenty or thirty years ago, when customers bought a car from the manufacturer and had no contact with them ever again. Parsa thinks this is a huge missed opportunity, when drug companies could be developing direct relationships with their patients and partnering with patient-facing technology services like Babylon.

The good news is that increasingly familiar Pharma-Partner strategy, common in discovery, is already happening in wearables.

With 10 drug-plus-digital pilots on the docket earlier this year, Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez told Bloomberg Business, “We would go in with a package of services including the pharmaceutical, the technology that will help that patient comply, a warning system that showed if that patient was not complying.” He then said, “We will have to partner with companies that have like interests in the tech space."

Penelope LaRocque wrapped up that Intouch blog post with this…

The future of healthcare is in prevention. Wearables and apps are already helping people lead healthier lives by giving them more information about their day-to-day health, which allows them to make better choices overall.  

Pharma is particularly well-placed to play a key role in this future. Pharma knows diseases and patients; it knows the regulations and how to work within them. If pharma doesn’t step in, someone else will.

Did I mention that the title of that post was Health Apps and Wearables: The Future of Pharma ?

It might be time to get a wearable strategy.

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