It’s prediction season. That means it’s time for shaking off the worst of pharma news the past 12 months (Ivermectin? Really?), waxing nostalgic about the best (3.13 billion people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 through early November) and turning the calendar to a new year ripe with possibility. Here’s what a host of med-tech thought leaders expect to see in the months ahead.
Remote monitoring seizes the spotlight
While it’s become a catch-all phrase, the essential meaning of monitoring gets more important every day, says Klick Health medical director Dr. Gautam Gulati. “It’s not enough to talk about meeting patients where they are anymore. What should we be monitoring at home, and with what devices and diagnostics? How are devices going to speak to each other — and how are we going to make sense of them?”
Gulati believes some of these innovations may well be facilitated by non-traditional health players. Best Buy, for example, recently acquired Current Health, an at-home tech care startup. And Amazon continues to explore the space, recently adding Alexa Together, a subscription service designed to help families with an elderly patient at home.
“There’s going to be a lot of experimentation — and failure — as more companies tackle this in ’22,” Gulati adds.
In fact, he expects the real excitement to come not so much from the devices themselves but from the technology that enables data aggregation in meaningful ways. He points to Zus Health, a company recently started by Athenahealth cofounder Jonathan Bush, as an example.
Gulati characterizes Zus’ company’s platform as a Lego kit of sorts for digital healthcare companies. “It’s a needed solution, serving as the glue between all of these different digital diagnostics and therapeutic devices. That has to happen before there is significant adoption,” he explains.
Clinical trials, decentralized
Gulati also expects companies to evolve the ways they approach clinical trials. He points to tech-driven approaches such as the one espoused by Daphne Koller, a former Stanford University professor whose new organization, Insitro, has built a machine-learning platform designed to discover drugs. After forging partnerships with pharma A-listers such as Gilead and Bristol Myers Squibb, Insitro raised another $400 million.
In the post-blockbuster drug era, Gulati says, “We’re going to have to figure out how to create millions of data points for millions of patients for a variety of different conditions. Life sciences companies know there are many implications and are starting to ask more questions as they rethink trials.”
Ease of use eclipses patient outcomes
Sooner or later, the broader healthcare industry will have to accept a harsh reality: that one in five healthcare workers have quit their jobs since COVID-19 struck, creating epic staffing shortages. Vivo Agency president Tom Dudnyk believes this new dynamic changes everything.
“Instead of focusing on better clinical outcomes, it’s now about how to make products and solutions that are easier,” he explains. “No one has time to fiddle with tech or get confused. All that matters is making healthcare easier to provide, and that’s not typically what tech companies do.”
Customer data platforms grow up
For nearly a decade, companies such as Netflix and Amazon have been using customer data platforms and machine learning to improve one-to-one customer engagements. It took COVID-19 and the disruption it imposed to convince pharma companies to get with the program.
Customer data platforms serve as the connective tissue that may finally enable healthcare companies to offer genuinely personalized marketing that improves care. Paul Pierce, SVP of professional services at Intouch B2D, says that effective personalization requires three key ingredients: data, experience and applied technology.
Innovations from companies such as Salesforce and Adobe are behind this new data awakening. “This is the final answer that ties it all together. It’s the ‘wizard behind the curtain’ component that’s been missing,” Pierce says.
Intouch B2D SVP of sales and marketing Mike Strassberg adds, “Above and beyond the conversation with providers about adding value, these hyper-personalized experiences can improve care.”
The AI ascent accelerates
Predictions about artificial intelligence’s ultimate effect on healthcare have been kicking around for decades, but the truth is that many companies already harness it in effective ways. Still, Publicis Health Media president Andrea Palmer believes the best is yet to come — and soon.
“We’re going to see AI’s influence really crystallize next year,” she predicts. “It is already impacting the entire care pathway, from diagnosis to prescribing to back office.”
Indeed, as tech behemoths such as Microsoft invest in the healthcare space, we’ll likely see AI “emerge as both an infrastructure to maximize efficiencies and a B2C communications tool with huge potential to improve patient outcomes,” Palmer adds. “In the year ahead, marketers need to pay close attention.”
Privacy headaches endure
Privacy concerns have long dominated pharma’s relationship with technology, and the move away from third-party cookies only helps so much. Worse, government policy remains an alphabet soup of restrictions, Pierce says.
“If I’m marketing to a person in Massachusetts or California or Canada, which guidelines do I need to follow?” he asks.
The industry needs to answer such questions definitively. “There are just too many jurisdictional boundaries, and the audience is ultimately the decider,” Pierce continues. “There isn’t a universal answer, but there are themes. What data will be collected? And how is it going to be used?”
Wearables turn predictive
As companies continue to learn from the Fitbits, Ōura rings and Whoops of the world, there’s finally enough behavioral science data to begin to predict health and illness. “We’re starting to make that leap to predict certain conditions as they begin to track internal vital signs,” Gulati says optimistically.
A Mount Sinai study recently showed wearables could predict COVID-19, for example, while another device has been able to accurately predict flu infections. Gulati believes predictions around pregnancy, menstrual cycles and fertility will soon follow.
Content gets faster — and more social
Content production typically moves like molasses through pharma’s marketing pipeline, even though social media conversations go down in real-time. But the gap between the two is getting more bridgeable, Pierce says. “As companies get better at producing modular content, there will be more opportunities to talk to consumers in social channels while referencing that content.”
Pierce also expects that technology will ultimately help pharma companies tame the “adverse event bogeyman” that has kept so many companies away from social media. “With machine learning and natural language processing, they can better respond to and manage those occurrences,” he explains.
Underserved groups get more attention
In 2021, the industry participated in more conversations about the need to properly consider social determinants of health. As these conversations were taking place, COVID-19 continued to shine a bright light on the scourge of health disparities.
In 2022, then, look for companies to find ways to use health-tech to better treat and accommodate underserved communities. “Minority populations, LGBTQ communities, women, mental health problems — we’ve heard plenty about this in 2021. That is going to intensify as health-tech continues to hyper-segment,” Gulati predicts. “It’s part of the trend toward unbundling healthcare.”
Portfolios usurp products
Dudnyk believes health-tech products that don’t continuously demonstrate their value risk becoming commodities. To that end, he stresses that companies have to provide more than a widget.
“There has to be an end-to-end solution for a disease,” he explains. “Medical devices need to be connected to a central software system, producing reports with AI reviewing the data. It has to identify patients that need intervention.”
This will lead to the creation of integrated portfolios of products that act as a solution to a disease state challenge. “No one wants a single product. Healthcare providers are looking for strategic partnerships with health tech companies,” Dudnyk says.
‘Better care, fewer people’
But all of the health-tech gains will be for naught if the industry doesn’t address the crisis of worker shortages. “Med-tech openings go unfilled for years, and we’re already looking at some nurses making $125,000 per year,” Dudnyk explains. “These are all new models and health-tech companies need to address that pivot.”
That means marketing strategy and messages must all be about enabling better care with fewer people. “Everything will have to play into that narrative,” Dudnyk continues. “This is a global situation and it’s here for the foreseeable future. The days of throwing people at healthcare problems are over.”