Pharmaceutical mHealth 2011: Observations and reflections

Recently, I was a delegate at the Pharmaceutical mHealth Conference in London. Academics and experts working in the field of data communications, healthcare professionals, as well as professionals representing mobile platform developers were all well represented amongst the attendees. The conference sought to create discussions around mobile healthcare strategies, as telemedicine has vast potential to revolutionise healthcare, especially in the developing world, which was a hot topic at the event. Perhaps the most surprising statistic uncovered at the event was the fact that mobile telephony is the technology with the highest penetration rate in the world, with the number of mobile phones exceeding 5 billion in 2011 (77% of the world’s population).

The following represent some of the highlights of the conference.

Opportunities and Initiatives

Supply Chain Management: Pfizer in the Gambia

The ‘SMS for Health’ initiative is a commitment on behalf of Pfizer, Vodafone, and local governmental organisations to aid the management of stocks of vital drugs in rural, remote areas of the developing world. The programme is currently being piloted in Gambia, where mobile penetration rate is as high as 96%.

Johannes Waltz, Director, Developing World and MLO Engagement, Pfizer Europe, highlighted the fact that despite the high penetration rate, the majority of the Gambia’s population owns what are called ‘feature phones’ (mobile telephones that do not have the features of a smartphone, and are not as ‘high-end’), which is why the strategy that was chosen is based on simple SMS texting technology. SMS for Health aims to track medication stock levels using real-time information collected through the use of mobile phones. The data is analysed on a weekly basis and also collects data about expiry dates for specific drugs, prioritizing problem health areas such as malaria and maternal health.

The programme has had good response rates so far, which looks promising for the Gambia’s Ministry of Health, who holds the responsibility of improving the country’s supply chain. Supply chain management in the developing world can often be challenging, due to stock outages and the availability of counterfeit drugs. To this point, mobile approaches have been used for mPedigree programmes, which allows consumers to check the provenance of drugs instantly.

Cost savings

At the conference, it was established that mobile health initiatives can provide the population of developing countries with better access to medication and treatment. Another major benefit of integrating mobile platforms within healthcare systems is the potential to significantly reduce costs, eliminating the need for hospital treatment and one-to-one visits in some cases. By focusing on prevention, rather than treatment, telemedicine initiatives can monitor remote patients, ensure that they take their medication properly, and even make use of smartphone cameras in order to diagnose a given symptom or issue from anywhere in the world. There is a tendency to move care for various conditions into ‘the community’ in many countries, including the UK, where National Health Service is under more strain than ever.

Another initiative presented at the conference was the videophone consultation website 3g Doctor, which allows patients to talk to a physician via their mobile phone. This is especially useful at weekends or during out of hours times when GPs may not be available to consult with their patients. The service also provides tools to store and manage important health information via mobile phones, which allow patients to retrieve their medical data anywhere in the world, saving time and reducing the risk of costly medical errors.

Figure 1: 3G Doctor Website

What’s in it for pharmaceutical companies?

The emerging ‘mobile ecosystem’ is still in an early phase, and so it is difficult to say what the commercial value for pharmaceutical companies is at this stage. It is true that there are lots of interesting initiatives in the space of mobile at the moment, but do they provide any financial value to pharmaceutical companies?

Adesina Iluyemi, one of the presenters at the conference and the founder of MoDiSe, a service that uses mobile tools to deliver quick diagnoses and interventions at the point of care says: “For the Pharma, the advantages are numerous, but the main is the ability to collect data from multiple and disparate sources and objects across different geographical, social, economic divides. Mostly, I feel the value is how the Pharma use data generated from mHealth systems to improve their core roles of drug discovery and development.”

Another aspect of mHealth initiatives that matters to pharmaceutical companies is the potential to facilitate improved outcomes for patients taking a company’s drugs. This can improve the therapy’s rate of success, facilitated by the ease of data collection carried out through mobile platforms. Patients can provide feedback on medication, and other information that can educate the industry about their usage habits.

The above mentioned mobile data collection process also has the potential to make the R&D more cost-efficient by speeding up certain research phases (faster paths to trials, etc.).

Furthermore, practices such as e-detail delivery on mobile devices (such as Android, etc.) may help capture and maintain market share as they enable rich information sharing without the need for a visit.

Conclusion

As 3G Doctor’s David Doherty pointed out during the conference, the earliest mobile platforms developed within the healthcare sector , but now mHealth lags behind other industry use of mobile (the US government, the armed forced and the UK police are already using the technology to increase productivity and save costs)

Whilst mobile platforms should certainly not be perceived as disruptive, or as a ‘challenge’ to pharmaceutical companies, having a mobile app just for the sake of having an app (without mapping out the direction the company is going to go in to attain certain goals) is not the way to go.

It is important to recognize that mobile phones are powerful, but inexpensive pieces of hardware: PharmExec estimates that by 2013, over 21% of medicine will be practiced online – and a large chunk of it via mobile phone. This is certainly a sign that every major ‘player’ in the healthcare sector needs to adapt to the changing environment.

All things considered, there are certainly lots of exciting initiatives in the space of mobile, and simple technologies can benefit a large number of people. However, pharmaceutical companies investing in mHealth really need to be clear about why they are using the mobile approach, and how it can provide ROI.

Georgiana Murariu

Georgiana Murariu currently works as market development researcher for Creation Healthcare, where she tracks and develops interesting insights in the area of digital health. Georgiana Murariu joined Creation Healthcare in July 2011 to support the company's core marketing functions, having just graduated from Canterbury Christ Church University with a Bachelor's degree in Marketing with Media and Cultural Studies.