Tunnah’s musings: Healthcare technology signals judgement day for pharma

Fresh from the Doctors 2.0 & You conference in Paris, Paul Tunnah has had an epiphany on how technology is impacting healthcare, musing on how the pharma industry has two choices – embrace it or face eradication at the hands of the machines.

I became self- aware, on 6 June 2014, at about 4.46pm European time, of exactly how big a game changer technology is going to be for pharma.

It was in the middle of an interesting presentation by ‘medical futurist’ Bertalan Mesko (better known as @Berci in the world of Twitter), but was actually a culmination of what I had seen and heard over the preceding 24 hours during this year’s Doctors 2.0 & You conference in Paris. The event is somewhat unique in my world, because the pharmaceutical industry is almost a minority voice alongside doctors, digital entrepreneurs, technology advocates and, of course, patients.

“Technology is potentially much more than a disrupter to the pharmaceutical industry”

But the trigger for my self-awareness was the realisation of what ‘beyond-the-pill’ actually means. I suspect many reading this (including most within pharma) will be of the view that it talks about what the industry can do to complement its traditional pharmacological interventions. This is one valid interpretation, but another is that it talks about a future age where drug treatment has been rendered unnecessary by technology.

You see, technology is potentially much more than a disrupter to the pharmaceutical industry. It could also be its eradicator.

Companies like Google are the Skynet of healthcare. The devices they are introducing into our lives are like Terminators sent back in time to wipe out disease before it even becomes symptomatic, and consequently wiping out the need for a pharmaceutical industry to treat it.

The quantified-self movement is taking hold. People are assuming responsibility for managing their own wellness, seeking to understand their risk of disease and taking steps to prevent it occurring. Companies like 23andme are offering genetic screening to tell you exactly what may afflict you later in life and what to do about it. When early signs of disease are detected, doctors are starting to prescribe information and healthcare apps as preventative medicine, rather than waiting for later-stage medication to manage the symptoms.

So what can pharma do about this?

It needs to stop standing on the sidelines, staring in bewilderment at all the shiny new toys being unveiled by these technology giants. It needs to start engaging with them – and patients, doctors and every other healthcare stakeholder – to understand how it can use its enormous experience of medicine to better integrate technology alongside pills, or in place of them.


“A patient – telling them both that listening was not enough”

Nowhere is this reticence to engage more visible than in the realms of social media, where both pharma and medical professionals seem determined to cling onto a world that is quickly slipping away. During one session I moderated, the topic of pharma social media engagement at the product level came up. ‘No’, said the industry, we cannot do this because it is against the regulations and it will disrupt the doctor-to-patient relationship. ‘No’, agreed the doctors, arguing that they, and they alone, must be the custodians of product discussions with patients.

And then, a rebellious voice from the back of the room – a patient – telling them both that listening was not enough. They have access to all kinds of information on the internet about their disease and treatments and they want two-way dialogue with both their doctor and the pharma industry around what information is right and which treatment is best for them. When it comes to protecting the doctor-to-patient relationship, the horse has already bolted and it’s running fast on cyborg-enhanced legs.

The combination of personal technology (wearable health trackers, personalised apps, genetic testing kits) and crowd technology (social media and online disease and product information channels) has put information, devices and diagnostics on a very level playing field with medicines, when it comes to managing wellness and treating disease.

As the likes of Google, Microsoft and Samsung march into the healthcare space, unhindered by traditional methods defined by 100 years of modern medicines, the pharma industry has two choices.

On the one hand, it can seek to engage and partner with such companies, combining its years of expertise and credibility in medical research and commercialisation with their novel technologies, which could bring to market extremely powerful, novel solutions that can positively impact patients far more rapidly than either side acting alone. But to do this, pharma has to accept that, in some cases, a drug may not be the answer. In fact, for whole disease areas, the market for drugs may virtually disappear as preventative technology takes over.

“Pharma has to accept that, in some cases, a drug may not be the answer”

And the alternative? Pharma can maintain a firm focus on medicines, complemented by ‘beyond-the-pill’ technologies that seek to address disease awareness, diagnosis and adherence in ever-dwindling patient populations (and which, in many cases, don’t really add much value). But the endpoint in this latter game is, I believe, hasta la vista pharma.

Let me leave you with this thought though. It’s not my intention to be negative about the industry with this post. Exactly the opposite – I think it has a massive opportunity, which it needs to grab with both hands. In the face of the technology revolution, pharma can forge its path – there is no fate but what it makes.

Until next month, stay well and…I’ll be back.



About the author:

Paul Tunnah is CEO & Founder of pharmaphorum media, which facilitates productive engagement for pharma, bringing healthcare together to drive medical innovation. It combines industry-leading content and social media engagement services with the globally recognised news, information and insight portal pharmaphorum.com, working with pharmaceutical companies, service providers and broader healthcare organisations to help communicate their thought leadership and connect them with relevant stakeholders.

For queries he can be reached through the site contact form or on Twitter @pharmaphorum.

Have your say: How should be pharma be embracing technology?