What's Your Connected Health Strategy?

Larry Mickelberg, chief digital officer at Havas Health
Larry Mickelberg, chief digital officer at Havas Health

Several times over the past couple of decades emerging new technologies have forced smart companies to face the questions: What's new here and what's our strategy now? We are once again at one of those moments.

I just returned from Austin, Texas, the home of the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival of music, film and interactivity. There, for the first time, health wasn't a breakout topic, but rather a “break-in” topic that had the attention of just about every presenter and attendee.

In its wake, smart pharma companies should be asking those strategy questions about a major new development in the economy: connected health. This is one of the buzz phrases being used to describe a combination of technologies, circumstances and mindsets that are coming together with the potential to transform a sector of the economy worth $2.8 trillion in the US alone.

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The transformation will involve established incumbents in the healthcare market–pharma companies, device and equipment manufacturers, healthcare providers and insurers–as well as new entrants to the market that are identifying ways to reduce costs and create new services.

Beyond traditional healthcare competencies

Established healthcare players understandably think that few new entrants have the core competencies that have traditionally been so highly prized (and priced) in healthcare: medical expertise, clinical facilities and the ability to develop drug therapies. However, this doesn't always matter. In fact it's becoming increasingly apparent that healthcare outcomes depend on a lot more than just those expensive core competencies. There is a shift towards the more cost-effective approach of getting consumers to take more responsibility for their health, both in preventive healthcare and in chronic disease management. Core healthcare competencies are less relevant here than expertise in technology, human behavior and motivation. Keep your eye on Apple's new ResearchKit platform, one of the real stars of the SXSW banter.

If healthcare providers such as pharma companies want to maintain their position as leading guarantors of healthcare outcomes, they will need to think beyond their habitual domains of drugs and clinical practice. They will need to develop services that help patients change their lifestyle and they will need to find ways to help patients to stick with their treatment regime. They will need to create systems that enable them to monitor patients in real time and intervene quickly when required. In short, they need to understand how to update and intensify the value they provide.

Healthcare in the 21st century will be increasingly connected through time and between providers. Interaction with patients will take place mostly in the background, cost-effectively keeping them on track for optimal health outcomes. By creating connected health services, a pharma company can achieve several important objectives: improve the real-world outcomes of its drug portfolio; get closer to patients, thereby building greater brand awareness and esteem; and create new opportunities for revenue streams.

More than drugs and wearables

For any patient living with a chronic condition, drug therapies are an essential element of connected health. They are a pharma company's calling card and they give the company the advantage of privileged access to the healthcare professional and to the patient. However, on their own, they are just momentary connections between the brand and its customers. They also face price resistance from payers and competition from generics.

Connected health certainly involves new generations of portable and wearable health gadgets–the growing variety of sensors that can track key metrics such as body temperature, heart rate, blood sugar levels and oxygen saturation. Gathered wirelessly the data from these gadgets provides the raw material for continuous health analytics–the sort of detailed health profile that was previously available only for patients wired up in the hospital. On their own, however, sensors are nothing special. Like most technologies, they're becoming commoditized and have a short replacement cycle.

A bigger aspiration

The industry must, at long last, depart from the condition-centered mindset that's about drugs and their impact on the condition. Connected health is patient-centered. It focuses on understanding the patient and the needs and problems caused by the patient's condition. The aspiration is to create experiences that deliver solutions to those needs and problems.

Connected health understands that the effectiveness of a drug depends on a whole lot more than how good it is pharmaceutically. It understands that effective healthcare must improve not only objectively measurable disease parameters, but also patients' experience of their condition and its treatment. Hence connected healthcare requires working with drugs in a broader context: embedding them in experiences that help a patient with a specific conditions deal more effectively with the condition and live better with it. This may involve additional actions, such as helping patients remember to take their medication. It may involve dietary guidance, connections to social support, nudges to undertake physical activity or other non-drug interventions.

Targeted, timely and personal

Mobile devices and cloud-based analytics are the super-smart shiny new gadgets on the healthcare scene, the stars of trade events such as the annual Consumer Electronics Show and SXSW. But beware: However smart they may be, it's important not to get hung up on them. They are just the enablers of connected healthcare.

Their value for healthcare lies in enabling smart companies and their marketers to take one-size-fits-all elements and customize them for individual patients. For medication and supporting services to be as effective as possible, they must be targeted, timely and personal. This means delivering the right intervention at the right time in the right way for each particular type of patient.

The combination of wearables, cloud-based analytics and feedback loops makes for a smarter system. Drawing on masses of fine-grained data, it can segment patients on the basis of the interventions that will likely work for them. It can generate treatment algorithms and clinical decision support. Applying predictive algorithms to real-time monitoring data, it can anticipate events and respond in good time.

Creating a connected health offering

For companies and brands who haven't yet started, here's a quick how-to checklist:

  • Aspire to full solutions: The winners in connected health will be providers who focus on optimizing the patient experience and aim to deliver full solutions to the patient needs associated with a condition.
  • Root them in insights: Connected health solutions arise from deep and thorough exploration of patient experiences. Insight-driven marketing practice provides the foundations.
  • Map out team specialties needed: End-to-end solutions are bound to involve a range of different specialties–certainly medical, pharma, technical and marketing, probably commercial, regulatory and others.
  • Source team relationships: The success of the connected health solution will depend on the quality of the team of innovators. While some elements of the team may be found in-house, others will require reaching out to external specialists through networking, referrals and conferences.
  • Identify barriers and pitfalls: New initiatives typically face barriers that slow development. On the flip side, rushed development increases the risk of hitting potholes. Tap cross-functional expertise to get through the barriers, avoid pitfalls and meet regulatory, quality and compliance requirements.
  • Identify the most impactful steps: Success generates belief and momentum. Which initiative in a full solution would be likely to have a measurable impact? It might be driving adherence, or it might be regular monitoring.
  • Keep it constantly in beta: Feedback loops are an essential feature of connected health. Whatever end-to-end solution you start with should be capable of identifying what works and what doesn't, and adapting accordingly.

Larry Mickelberg is partner and chief digital officer at Havas Health and president at Havas Lynx US.