How to unlock mHealth by putting the patient first

Published on June 16, 2015

Pharma companies have the greatest potential to make waves in mobile health (mHealth) - but haven’t yet

The changing landscape of healthcare

Healthcare is hot right now. It’s the fastest growing industry in the US and among the most rapidly changing. And with game changers like advanced health tracking wearables and Apple’s rollout of HealthKit and ResearchKit, it’s no surprise that mobile health (mHealth) is poised to take off with it. While uptake of mHealth technology is slow at the moment, with only about 10% of the US population having used it, the market is expected to see a massive boom within a few years. The worldwide market for mHealth is projected to be $26 billion by the end of 2017 – a huge jump from the market’s $2.4 billion revenue in 2013.

Right now is the time to disrupt the healthcare ecosystem by harnessing the rapidly expanding mobile technology – like wearables – to fill the gaps in mobile health solutions. Private startups are leading innovation by creating user-centered solutions that meet healthcare needs. These range from products that let patients book appointments and communicate with their doctors through their phone to being able to send their healthcare providers information instantly from a health tracking wearable.

Why pharma companies will take the lead in mHealth

Private health startups are spearheading most of today’s advances in mHealth, but what about the longtime big players in healthcare like insurance companies and big pharma? Moving healthcare to mobile is an enormous, complicated task, and it’s likely to be done by a player that is already heavily involved in the healthcare system. Of the major stakeholders with potential for making waves in mHealth, pharma is the farthest behind in the race to develop widely adopted mHealth offerings. Pharma’s most successful mobile apps have only accrued 6.6 million downloads since 2008 and, more importantly, they boast less than 1 million active users. But if we were taking bets on which major contender is going to take a big piece of the projected $26 billion mHealth pie, I’d put my money on pharma companies, and here’s why:

  • Safety: Users need to feel safe relying on the maker of an mHealth app to provide personal data security and accurate health information. Pharma is widely known to prioritize data security and has experts that can navigate regulations around health information security.
  • Partnerships: Pharma companies are ideally positioned to form partnerships with hospitals, insurance networks and other infrastructure necessary to make a seamless mHealth experience possible.
  • Patient population expertise: Pharma companies understand patient populations. While pharma companies currently don’t offer mHealth apps that are expertly tailored to fit the needs of specific health demographics, they have a solid understanding of different disease states and patient populations that will prove invaluable in informing the design of future mHealth offerings.
  • Harnessing mHealth data: Pharma companies are set to benefit hugely from user data coming from these apps. They can apply that data to making a difference in how treatment is administered and progressing patient care.

Why prioritizing the user is key

So why are pharma companies – giants in healthcare – so behind in mHealth?  It’s widely thought that the pharmaceutical industry is conservative, and fear of scrutiny and liability limits its innovation. Ultimately, this fear prevents pharma companies from producing an mHealth offering that garners sustained use and notably improves patient outcomes.

Up to now, most of the apps put out by pharma companies have been created to benefit their bottom line, not the end user. Pharma offerings generally haven’t set out to produce something that is new and innovative in the mhealth space or impacts overall, long-term health objectives. Offerings haven’t been designed for the end user – and that’s the key. To make any mobile offering successful, it has to be designed to harmoniously fit into the user’s life, and this is especially true in creating an mHealth offering. An mHealth product design must center around unique user behavior and aim to help users with varying disease states make healthier choices.

Healthcare is already convoluted, scary and confusing for the average person. An mHealth offering that reduces friction in navigating healthcare systems will significantly improve patients’ treatment experience and outcomes. The mHealth design of today looks more like industrial grade machine rather than a familiar, straightforward and easy-to-use household item. Tailoring the mHealth experience to the unique needs, behaviors, knowledge levels and preferences of patients, caregivers and healthcare professionals will produce a digital offering more likely to succeed and make an impact. A worthwhile mHealth app will attempt to achieve more holistic goals instead of singular business goals. Most importantly, it will have a foundation built around user needs.

How we’re helping our pharma clients to embrace mHealth

Pharma companies can and will overcome their limitations. At Beyond, we are currently working with our pharma clients who are pushing internally to change how the industry resolves problems. We are collaborating to change the environment from a “business objective first” model to a “patient first” model. Building mobile solutions in an agile way and testing on patients, caregivers and healthcare professionals to validate features as we go ensures that our products are truly serving the needs of their audience. Understanding the needs and tensions of patients with specific diseases, and those of their caregivers and healthcare providers, is where innovation is born in terms of mHealth.

This approach will help users in the healthcare system, but it also has the potential to massively benefit the pharma industry. A user-centered offering that brings added value to the healthcare community will build consumer loyalty and subsequently a better brand perception and greater long-term profits and value. Pharma companies need to abandon their current defensive and criticism-avoidant stance and put their users first, instead of their bottom line. Breaking free of their traditionally conservative approach will unlock their potential as industry powerhouses that are also innovative leaders in mHealth.