I wonder if it’s too early to say if there’s a movement happening here. I see signs that remind me of the big shifts that have happened online over the last 15 years, but that doesn’t mean it’s really occurring. So you tell me: Does pharma realize that they are less in the pill business and more in the health business?

Of course, maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe because so many of the world’s health problems require some sort of prescription medication that it doesn’t matter what business they are in because the sales will always be there.

But maybe it does matter. What pharma presentation doesn’t start with the litany of horrors about the ending of blockbuster drug patents, insurance changes, and slowing sales? Maybe re-framing the issue gives pharma the opportunity to see themselves in a different light and get beyond their less-than-hopeful prognosis for their industry.

So if pharma is in the “getting people healthy” business, they need to see and embrace all the ways people can get healthier, and right now, the fun/sexy/exciting means of doing that involves tech. Specifically, mobile tech.

I don’t need to get into all the reasons why mobile and health care make such a great match (Need a refresher? Here you go: 2012 Tech Outlook for Pharma) so let’s just skip ahead and pretend pharma has embraced mobile tech not just as a means of selling more pills, but as a new part of their complete health package.

This means that apps aren’t just commercials, but have to become powerful tools that help people become healthier. They can’t stop at “Let’s make the patient aware that they might have a diagnosable issue.” Let’s move them down the road to “As part of treating condition X, we have prescribed Brand Y and bundled it with this app to help you make healthier choices.”

By moving to a mobile platform, pharma can start to embrace elements of local check-ins (how many times you went to the gym and how many times you went to that greasy spoon around the corner), gamification (get points for taking your meds and drinking enough water) and social media (let your friends encourage you to take care of your health because they can see when you’re really working at it).

Uh oh. We’ve just moved past the world of the un-branded app into something bigger. Who’s gonna pay for all this?

Getting pharma to embrace the idea that apps are something more than product commercials is seismic, and requires a lot of changes on every level. So, what should pharma be able to do in the very near future?

Because these apps take a prescriptive course, they can’t really be said to be unbranded. Thus, they need to be treated like meds. They need a review process, even if the information they are conveying is pretty close to common sense. For example, when a doctor tells you to drink 8 glasses of water a day, it’s a non-event. If pharma tells you to drink 8 glasses of water a day, that’s prescription from a company and might need some review.

Maybe this shift will start to unearth some long-standing rules of thumb regarding health that might actually be untrue? (e.g., That “8 glasses of water” rule is a completely arbitrary number and doesn’t take into account the size, activity or even the local weather of the patient, right?)

And since these apps are no longer unbranded, and are a form of treatment, shouldn’t pharma be compensated? Oh, I have your attention now, don’t I? People spend more than a hundred dollars for As Seen On TV exercise programs. They should expect to pay for the same information in app form.

That sounds like quite a hurdle until you consider that if the apps are like a treatment from a doctor, the insurance companies are going to have to figure out how to cover them. While there will be whining from the insurance companies, the overall effect is that patients are more likely to improve their lifestyle and be reminded by the app to take their meds. This creates healthier patients, ones who are less likely to need to see a doctor and cheaper to insure.

All of these things lay the groundwork for a change in how most people view medicine: that prescriptions are often more effective when they work in tandem with lifestyle changes (e.g., pre-insulin diabetes treatments are going to be more useful if the patient loses weight and eats better). The burden on health doesn’t lay solely on pharma who makes the pill, or on the doctor who prescribed it, but equally between pharma, doctor and patient.

Merging the silos of pharma and non-pharma can only have a positive impact on the world’s health, as we can’t just take the pill and assume we’re going to be all better.


This also appeared over at ePharmaSummitBlog.com, where I am a guest blogger. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to talk about this in Twitter. Bring it!