mHealth Monthly Mashup: Release 9.0 – best practices for developing healthapps for the pharmaceutical industry (part 1)

Michael Spitz

Ignite Health

Technologist and developer in all-things-mobile, J. Michael Smallwood represents the kind of mobile expert who puts theory into practice on a daily basis. VP of Technology at Ignite Health, a healthcare communications-specialized agency offering mobile health solutions to some of pharma’s biggest clients. Smallwood tackles the tough challenges faced by an industry on the cutting-edge of revolutionary new technology, evolving clinical and regulatory strategy, and the ever-transforming mobile user experience. Let’s spend a few minutes discussing common concerns, established best practices, and exciting opportunities for pharma mHealth in 2012 and beyond.

MS: Hello, Michael, and thanks for joining us at pharmaphorum!

JMS: Thanks for inviting me.

MS: You’ve had extensive experience building mobile apps across multiple industries. How are pharma apps different?

JMS: While mobile fundamentals such as defining objectives and realizing audience expectations remain the same across most industries, pharma apps have some unique and significant characteristics that should be considered at the beginning of each design phase. Most importantly, we must leverage a deep understanding and sensitivity to the communications requirements mandated by the FDA and the Office of Prescription Drug Promotion, now known as the OPDP, specifically regarding the presentation of safety and prescribing information for all branded content—not a simple matter, as smartphone and tablet screens are, by their very nature, much smaller and less accommodating than conventional computer screens. In addition, the protection of proprietary data and patient information are of paramount importance. So the key is not to build apps because that seems like the trendy or cool “techy” thing to do, but because the implicit need is there, and the channel provides us a uniquely customized, hyper-localized way to communicate healthcare information and treatment solutions that work well for the audience, in ways we’ve never been able to do so before.

“…the key is not to build apps because that seems like the trendy or cool “techy” thing to do, but because the implicit need is there…”

MS: Can you describe the mobile design and development process?

JMS: It begins with extensive discovery prior to initiating any actual builds—too often a mobile vendor is brought in without sufficient clinical, regulatory, or industry knowledge, resulting in serious complications throughout the development cycle. Mobile shouldn’t be viewed as its own distinct plug and play channel, but as an organic extension of an already entrenched pharma client relationship.

As such, as an agency it’s ideal to have already worked with the legacy brand or done your homework for a new launch by applying our proven engagement strategy, a three-fold process of:-

1) Insight mining (defining your audience, objectives, and digital key performance indicators).

2) Asset creation (building with the buy-in of vital stakeholders every step of the way).

3) Measurement and optimization (utilizing the latest metrics tools and proven analytical expertise).

So in a nutshell it’s important to understand at this stage the brand goals, audience behavioral habits, and treatment landscape, and never take a mobile project as a fait accompli. Only after you’re sure a mobile app is appropriate and necessary should you even begin to pursue the actual design and development process.

“So in a nutshell it’s important to understand at this stage the brand goals, audience behavioral habits, and treatment landscape”

MS: All right, after you’ve determined that a pharma mobile app is viable, credible, and relevant for a brand, how do you go about building it?

JMS: What’s important to emphasize here is that although our methodology is essentially the same for each build, each instance is unique, demanding specialized decision-making and creative solutions at each touchpoint. To turn potential confusion into success you should focus on cross-team education that’s both documented and ongoing, roles are clearly identified and subject matter experts engaged, so that account, creative, and brand teams work seamlessly together to ensure the mobile build stays on strategy every step of the way. As a part of the discovery process you should evaluate the audience and mobile objectives against a value proposition and proposed budget by conducting usability testing and market research evaluations and interviewing healthcare professionals and patients themselves. In addition, work closelywith the pharma companies internal IT folks to leverage existing platforms, networks, and assets. In some cases we’ve found it best to support multiple platforms and devices, and in others only a single one (say, iPad) may prove relevant.

MS: Which platform do you think is better or more optimal for pharma?

JMS: That’s a loaded question! In terms of adoption we’re seeing some astonishing utilization statistics for the iOS platform device set (iPhone/iPad) in the healthcare space. Additionally, pharma has focused heavily on investing in iPad tablets for their sales reps and treatment specialists. Apple’s successful focus on simplicity, the optimal user experience, and creative expression has been impressive, all attained while meeting exacting security and performance needs that taken together have created a pretty strong hold for pharma. But the mobile space overall is highly fragmented, and loyalty to a single platform self-limiting. Ways to leverage code reuse across disparate platforms is often seen as an answer, but with that supposed economy of scale comes some tradeoff. For example, we’ve created pharma apps with heavy use of HTML5 that deploy relatively quickly to Android, iOS, and BlackBerry platforms, but the user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) are not of the same caliber as those apps built exclusively for their native platforms. Mobile technology is rapidly evolving to drive efficiency, but device and platform accommodation must be considered as a part of the initial planning phase for any new pharma app.

Part two of this interview can be viewed here

About the interviewee and author:

J. Michael Smallwood is VP of Technology at Ignite Health, where he oversees all aspects of digital production and technical development. With a unique ability to attain brand objectives through innovative technical solutions, Smallwood has helped shape the digital offerings of numerous pharmaceutical clients throughout the United States. Prior to joining Ignite Health he was the founder and CEO of Syndicated Methods, Inc., a mobile startup with top-tier clients and partners including Apple, Google, and Blackberry.

Michael Spitz is VP of Digital Strategy at Ignite Health, with offices located in New York City, New York, and Irvine, California. Spitz combines his passion for technology with more than 15 years of clinical content expertise to help engineer healthcare communications solutions across numerous treatment areas for many of the pharmaceutical industry’s major companies. Follow @SpitzStrategy on Twitter for his daily – often hourly – updates on all things digital for the ultimate benefit of patients worldwide.

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