Pharma gets social: Boehringer Ingelheim partners for innovation in COPD

Daniel Ghinn highlights the launch of a long-term collaboration that aims to go beyond experimentation and find practical solutions in the health space.

Among the pharma innovations I have profiled over the years in this column, some of the most effective digital initiatives have been the result of partnerships between pharma companies and external stakeholders. Digital media collaborations provide opportunities for companies and organisations to play to their strengths; for example, a patient group with access to communities of patients may be supported with knowledge, content or training by a pharma company that, in turn, struggles to engage patients directly online.

So I was interested to hear recently of a new ‘five-year research and health care innovation collaboration’ between Boehringer Ingelheim (BI) and not-for-profit health system Sutter Health, based in North California, and focused on digital health solutions, mobile technologies and advanced data analytics.

Innovation with practical outcomes?

BI has long been a leader in digital innovation, even in some cases where the primary goal seems to have been to simply learn from digital behaviours. So this collaboration (while not strictly focused on social media) is exciting because the company has the opportunity to build on its innovation heritage in an initiative that promises a purpose beyond experimentation alone.

Certainly it appears that learning is still a key goal, but so are practical outcomes. According to BI the collaboration aims to: develop a ‘tablet or kiosk-based data collection system to collect information directly from patients during every health encounter’; to make it ‘easier for healthcare professionals and patients to communicate about treatment options by developing technological means for integrating clinical and patient reported data in an engaging visual display’ and to ’empower shared decision making through the use of visual displays and other technologies that help connect patients and healthcare professionals and create more personal care’.

In other words, they will collect data from patients, combine that data with clinical data, and use this to help patients and their doctors to make informed decisions about care.


“It’s an opportunity to prove the value of combining mobile digital technology with data analytics, to deliver better healthcare”



It’s an opportunity to prove the value of combining mobile digital technology with data analytics, to deliver better healthcare.

The first project will focus on COPD patients, with the two organisations working alongside specialist doctors and patients. “We will work with our pulmonologists, patients and Boehringer Ingelheim to design, develop, and test the most promising ideas,” stated Sutter Health’s Joshua Liberman, director of Research, Development and Dissemination.

Better for doctors and patients

Chris Wahlers, associate director Public Relations with BI told me that the collaboration is simply another step in a long-standing relationship between the company and the COPD community. In a world of increasingly personalised medical care, he said: “Through this project in COPD, Boehringer Ingelheim and Sutter Health hope to make it easier for doctors and patients to work together to personalise medical care to the patient’s unique needs and preferences.”

The collaboration should also allow more time for doctors and patients to partner together, according to Sutter Health’s chief research officer, Walter ‘Buzz’ Stewart: “We believe that innovative technologies can help us develop a deeper understanding of patient needs, values, and care preferences—and create more time during office visits for doctors and patients to partner toward improved health outcomes.”

Wahlers added: “We understand that discovery doesn’t happen in isolation, and that often collaboration is key to development of innovative results. These are the results of teamwork.” He explained that Sutter Health was attractive to the company for its “extensive research experience, a robust network of hospitals and healthcare providers and access to large, diverse patient populations, as well as expertise in real world evidence development and in the development of joint care interventions.”

Ruchin Kansal, executive director and head, Business Innovation at BI, suggested that joining forces would result in “new insights into unmet needs in care delivery and inform development of new resources for patients.”

The five-year timescale represents a long-term commitment for the two, in a digital age where ideas come and go fast, and the relationship between doctors and patients is being transformed.

While BI has a commercial interest in the treatment of COPD, it seems possible that the model being explored by this collaboration could transform the doctor-patient relationship well beyond the two organisations and the COPD community. I look forward to seeing the results.

About the author:

Daniel Ghinn is CEO of Creation Healthcare, the strategic consultancy to pharma and healthcare for the digital age. He tweets at @EngagementStrat.

Read more from Daniel Ghinn’s monthly Pharma Gets Social series:

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