Originally posted on Pharmaceutical Market Europe (PME)
When British Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock addressed the Public Health England annual conference in September, his speech provided valuable backing for the prediction that AI is set to transform the nature of health provision.
His observation that ‘personalised prevention’ enabled by the ‘data-crunching power of AI’ will become the guiding principle of public health in the 2020s, and the increasing dominance of digital health in general, presents huge opportunities for pharma companies, and not just in terms of cost savings.
It has the potential to help pharma firms transform their relationships with the end users of their products, aiding the creation of more meaningful connections with consumers.
So how will this happen? There are four initiatives that pharma companies can adopt to benefit from the digital technologies reinventing consumer health:
Use voice recognition to power consumer connections
Voice recognition technology is now a critical dimension of device design. Leading analyst Emarketer predicts that over a third of Americans will be using a voice assistant like Siri or Alexa this year, up 9.5% from 2018. As such, it offers a multiplicity of possibilities for improving patient care.
Removing the need to read a screen or type on a keyboard is clearly of huge physical benefit to older people and those who are unwell. So, for pharma companies, a big opportunity is to programme AI assistants to act like a virtual health companion, using voice to remind users to take medication or attend medical appointments.
This is particularly appealing for chronic conditions like diabetes, where patients need to undertake numerous steps. But it is also a potent tool for people affected by memory issues. On a purely product-related level, voice-enabled interaction with patients offers the chance for better success rates for drugs if outpatients can be helped to take them consistently.
However, thinking more broadly, people suffering unexpected new symptoms (eg shortness of breath or sharp bouts of pain) could use voice to record their nature and frequency.
Voice is so simple that people could build an accurate pattern of their condition before making their doctor appointment. And there are other possibilities. Changes in an individual’s mental health, for example, could be monitored, as some early research has shown potential for detecting depression via speech.
All the above are opportunities for pharma companies to forge an authentic, proactive relationship with people long before they are waiting in line to pick up their prescription. Rather than just being a provider of drugs, enlightened pharma firms can create a holistic relationship with patients based around helping them take responsibility for their long-term health. Given that the pharma industry is prevented from advertising directly to consumers in most countries, voice is potentially a revolutionary communication channel.
Implicit in all this is that pharma companies can develop a distinctive personality, making them relatable to end users and driving brand trust/loyalty.
For pharma, the risk of not harnessing voice is that others will. One of the first in-home voice- controlled health assistants has already been launched this year by US firm Stanley Black & Decker. Its Pria system – a physical device that is linked to an app – can schedule up to
28 medication doses, provide reminder alerts, dispense the correct medication at the correct time, track caregiver visits and provide 24/7 customer service. This is a space pharma needs to become involved in.
Harness IoT to create real-time interactive relationships
The monitoring and management of health conditions is moving forward with the help of AI. Apps in conjunction with physical devices – either worn by the user or sited within the home – can create a comprehensive system for tracking patients’ movements and behaviour, feeding back data to medical professionals and/or friends and family. On an immediate level this allows for better patient support as the dynamic analysis of this data could allow for instant adjustments to care.
For example, Abilify MyCite is the first ‘digital medicine’ approved by the FDA in the US. It’s a combination of antipsychotic drug aripiprazole and an ingestible sensor made by Proteus Digital Health. When patients swallow the drug, the sensor sends a message to a patch worn on their skin, recording the date, time and physiological information.
This is then fed to an app on the patient’s mobile. Although much of the development of AI health products so far has been by tech or hardware specialists, pharma companies are waking up to the possibilities offered by the ‘Internet of Medical Things’. Pfizer appears to be the furthest ahead, putting the company in pole position to both enhance patient care and strengthen its connection with end users.
The US firm is collaborating with IBM on a fascinating project (BlueSky) that has equipped a house with masses of sensors on everything from kitchen cupboards to fridge handles. It has been designed to track disease progression in Parkinson’s sufferers. They are invited to spend time in the house and the data collected helps physicians understand their condition via their patterns of movement.
Personalise and improve products through big data
Alongside the benefits of real-time tracking outlined above, another key benefit of projects like Pfizer’s BlueSky is the vast amount of rich and relevant data generated. Once this data has been analysed and fed back into the drug production process, it allows the company to fine-tune treatments for patients in the house by showing how medication affects physiological changes.
This is a fine illustration of the new era of personalised medicine – and the advantages aren’t just for the small number of patients in the pilot project house. Once the data is aggregated, this will enhance the creation of all Pfizer’s medications for Parkinson’s.
Right now, there are three main challenges for drug firms like Pfizer operating at this cutting edge. Firstly, the significant cost of investing in and experimenting with IOMT projects to discover how best to use the technology. Secondly, the issue of patient data privacy. Decisions over how to ask for consent to use data and the limits of what the data is used for will take time to evolve.
Meanwhile, companies must ensure that even where legislation hasn’t yet kept up with developments, they remain on the right side of the ethical line without incurring unnecessary costs.
Finally, pharma companies aren’t the only ones with amazing data. The company that owns Fitbit, for example, now has nine billion nights of sleep data available to analyse. But the Pfizer example is an indication of the prize available for pharma companies that can harvest in health data, either through bespoke, value-add experiments or apps/ devices that capture the public imagination.
Shift mindset/culture from pill pusher to life partner
What seems to be evident from each of these trends is that they give pharma companies an unprecedented opportunity to connect with consumers in a completely new way.
No longer just manufacturers and suppliers of pills, these digital health trends will enable pharma to develop a service-based model and take an active role in patient education and holistic care on a daily basis.
In the same way, fintech companies are using technology to shift from offering banking to becoming partners in their customers’ financial management, pharma firms – either alone or in partnership – can become service providers (with all of the new revenue streams that potentially unlocks).
Becoming visible, active partners in consumers’ management of their health might feel like an ambitious target at the moment, but tech evolves fast. In just a few years, the early health tech- adopting pharma companies may have earned the right to sit beside consumers in their homes.
Investing in emerging technologies isn’t without risk. And for pharma firms in particular there are regulatory considerations: firms will need to ensure they are not breaching strict UK regulations when adopting AI-powered technologies such as voice, IoT and data.
But this is not a reason to hold back from experimentation and careful implementation. As Pfizer’s leadership has recognised, sometimes it’s important to get involved early to reap the benefits.