A pharma guide to digital health, multichannel and digital transformation

Views & Analysis

Paul Tunnah runs through the six key aspects of digital health and how businesses can harness them.

It’s that time of year again – the leaves are turning brown, the weather is getting more autumnal and I’m getting ready to immerse myself in the world of digital health at the forthcoming Frontiers Health conference.

Between the 13th and 15th of November hundreds (I suspect actually close to one thousand this year) of people will gather in Berlin to hear the latest developments in digital health, with the audience including digital and innovation leads from the pharmaceutical industry, devices and diagnostics sector, plus healthcare investors, insurance providers and technology start-ups with a focus on this space.

As usual, I’m not just attending, but helping to shape the programme as a member of the Steering Committee and also running a live panel session on the topic of ‘Digital transformation of go-to-market for the pharmaceutical industry’. However, before I say more about that, there is one question I seem to be asked more and more…

What is digital health?

It’s often followed by some variation of ‘and how is it different to digital/multichannel marketing’?

The truth is there is not yet any single standard definition of this space, so below is my view of how it encompasses six core areas. I will warn in advance that these are not mutually exclusive and most digital health innovations will encompass elements of more than one.

“No company should have a digital health strategy – instead they should have a business strategy that includes key elements of digital health in delivering it”

1. Digital communication

This is anything to do with using online tools and platforms to facilitate the sharing of above brand information between stakeholders. This includes online forums, sharing and information sites for patients and medical professionals (e.g. Health Unlocked, WebMD/Medscape, Pagine Mediche, Inspire, medical association and patient organisation platforms and industry-sponsored educational sites), social media and internal communication platforms (e.g. Facebook Workplace, Chatter etc.).

2. Digital marketing

You can probably guess this one, but it’s everything to do with the application of digital technology to market products and services, such as the use of edetailing, product webinars, brand information platforms, CRM systems and the customer insights platforms that align with them. There’s clear overlap with ‘digital communication’, which there should be – in a compliant way – when it comes to delivering a seamless customer experience.

However, I don’t see digital marketing as being the same thing as multichannel (or omnichannel) marketing, even though some define it that way. For me, multichannel marketing done properly embraces both digital and non-digital promotional channels (including field force, events etc.).

It’s what many other industries just call ‘marketing’!

3. Digital data

Digital data in healthcare is a massive area, and it encompasses lots of other buzzwords, but it is, as the name would suggest, anything that helps collect more data on customers (patients, doctors, payers and so on). There is clear overlap here with other areas of digital health, because many systems have the potential to collect valuable data, but some innovations focus on this as their main raison d’etre.

Think about, for example, Flatiron, which was acquired by Roche in early 2018 due to its wealth of oncology real-world evidence collected by its electronic health records technology, or initiatives that are focussed on collecting genetic data such as the UK’s 100k Genomes project or commercial DNA sequencing companies like 23andMe.

4. Digital operations

This area is perhaps considered as the least ‘sexy’ of all the areas of digital innovation talked about in healthcare, but perversely has the greatest potential to deliver the most impact in the short-term.

Digital operations is all about applying novel technologies that enhance the efficiency or effectiveness (there is a difference – Google it if you’re not sure) of an organisation’s processes. This could be a software application that improves the way the medicines supply chain is managed, a novel approach to analysing clinical trial data that accelerates analysis or the programme itself, or internal digital command centres that monitor external communications and facilitate rapid response.

5. Digital diagnostics

This is another one that’s fairly obvious. Disease diagnosis is no longer limited to large machinery housed in specialist hospitals or even more localised point-of-care testing devices that analyse organs, body fluids or tissues to determine what might be the underlying cause for a particular symptom.

Now, digital diagnostics have the ability to monitor all kinds of vital signs in a non-invasive way and provide warning of potential diseases, in many cases much earlier than traditional diagnostics. These range from everyday devices like your iPhone or FitBit that measure steps taken or heart rate, to more complex hardware and software like the AliveCor remote ECG.

Heart rate, movement, skin colour, breath, voice, facial expressions, language and all kinds of other non-invasive metrics can now be measured and used for earlier and earlier diagnosis.

6. Digital medicines

Digital medicines, or digital therapeutics, is perhaps one of the most interesting areas of digital health with many believing it the fundamental future of medicine.

The Digital Therapeutics Alliance (DTA) recently release its definition here as:

“Digital therapeutics (DTx) deliver evidence-based therapeutic interventions to patients that are driven by high quality software programs to prevent, manage, or treat a medical disorder or disease. They are used independently or in concert with medications, devices, or other therapies to optimise patient care and health outcomes.

“DTx products incorporate advanced technology best practices relating to design, clinical validation, usability, and data security. They are reviewed and cleared or approved by regulatory bodies as required to support product claims regarding risk, efficacy, and intended use.

“Digital therapeutics empower patients, healthcare providers, and payers with intelligent and accessible tools for addressing a wide range of conditions through high quality, safe, and effective data-driven interventions."

In simple terms digital medicines are either traditional medicines enhanced by the application of a technological element to improve outcomes, such as Proteus Discover (first used to enhance schizophrenia medicine Abilify), or a standalone digital intervention that has therapeutic properties on its own.

In the latter case, no-one is under the illusion that an app is going to cure late-stage cancer, but they are seeing especially interesting results in CNS disorders, e.g. Dthera’s Alzheimer’s intervention, DTHR-ALZ, which uses machine learning to optimise palliative care for patients.

Ultimately, the best digital health interventions do two things – they span more than one of these areas but they also provide value for more than one healthcare stakeholder. In fact, the very best actively seek to support connectivity between different stakeholders, not replace it, such as MySugr in diabetes or the Healios app for mental health and wellbeing, which combine technology with real healthcare professionals.

“But wait a minute Paul,” I hear you say, “where does ‘digital transformation’ fit into this and which of these areas should my company focus on?”

The answer is that digital transformation is how organisations are embracing all of the above areas to change the way they do business – internally and externally. How you do that, which digital health elements you focus on, and what specific innovations and technologies you build, acquire or partner on depends on your own business objectives, driven by market needs.

In the same way that no company should have a digital marketing strategy, no company should have a digital health strategy – instead they should have a business strategy that includes key elements of digital health in delivering it.

Of course, these are just my definition, so let me know if you disagree, and if you want to learn more come and join me in Berlin and ask your questions in person.

See more information on Frontiers Health and register to attend at the official event website

About the author

Paul TunnahDr Paul Tunnah founded pharmaphorum in 2009, which combines industry leading publications (www.pharmaphorum.com) with a specialist strategy and content marketing / communications consultancy (www.pharmaphorumconnect.com). He is a recognised author, speaker and industry advisor on content marketing, communications and digital innovation, having worked with many of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies and the broader ecosystem of healthcare organisations.

Connect with Dr Tunnah at https://www.linkedin.com/in/paultunnah/