Soaring patient numbers are stretching hospital capacity across the globe, forcing healthcare providers and their partners to think laterally about how to meet the demand without doubling their resources. Smarter diagnostic tools and more sophisticated remote- and self-care models will have an increasingly important role to play, as long as any advances are seen to deliver excellent outcomes and a better patient experience.

Pharma, which is already growing its role in delivering hybrid solutions combining therapies with diagnostic and smart solutions and devices, could play a significant role here, providing smart end-to-end solutions and data-related tools that transcend the immediate treatment.

Secondary prevention and certain chronic diseases present a particular opportunity to add new value beyond the lab. Examples abound already in diabetes management, but smart monitoring and targeted interventions are also making inroads into the management of autoimmune disorders like inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular health issues, and cancer – both in monitoring the progression of those conditions, and in predicting and averting the chance of flare-ups.

In addition to doing more to proactively support healthcare providers and patients, digital health opportunities provide a chance for pharma companies to capture (and become a trusted source of) important real-world data about patients’ behaviour and their wider wellbeing.

Breaking down the opportunities

There are two main dimensions through which digital health solutions can have a significant impact. One is at a healthcare provider level, where the latest advances in genetic testing and biomarker measurement have the potential to boost the early detection of conditions and hone decision-making around the most effective treatments. The second is at a patient level, once an individual has started treatment. There, applications comprise of teleconsultations, remote monitoring and self-management of chronic conditions, which includes associated education, reminders and prompts to modify and maintain desired behaviour.

Marcos Gallego Llorente, senior consultant, Vintura

At a hospital or speciality care level, digital health can transform early and even incidental detection of serious diseases like cancer. Teams managing targeted screening programmes, such as checks for lung cancer in high-risk populations, may already use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to ‘read’ high volumes of medical images efficiently, and detect even minute traces of the disease that may be invisible to the human eye.

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Cosmo Pharmaceuticals’ GI Genius AI-enhanced endoscopy aid device, for instance, which detects colorectal lesions during a colonoscopy, is now approved for use in Europe, the US and Canada. The device, marketed worldwide via a partnership with Medtronic, works in real time as an adjunct to the gastroenterologist, highlighting regions with visual characteristics consistent with different types of mucosal abnormalities – such as colorectal polyps of all shapes, sizes and morphology.

Pharma’s potential role here is linked to the wider theme of how the industry can become more deeply embedded at the different stages of clinical pathways; how they can help relieve pressure on healthcare resources; and be present as part of the solution as conditions are detected and managed.

Doing more for patients with chronic conditions

Up to now, the treatment of chronic conditions has been the most transformed by digital health, attracting strong investment, from diabetes to multiple sclerosis (MS).

Targeted digital solutions here are helping both with the monitoring of patients’ physical symptoms and in maintaining good mental health. Sanofi’s partnership with mental health app provider Happify Health is a good example of the latter, extending support to patients to help them cope with depression and anxiety (people with MS can be up to five times more likely to develop severe depression than the general population). The app they are working on uses cognitive behavioural therapy to help improve mental health through education and other activities.

Merck KGaA’s SmartPatient/adveva multi-channel patient support system, meanwhile, connects MS patients all over the world with a range of support services, including round-the-clock access to instructional videos on how to safely handle medication, tips for living with MS, personalised reminders to keep patients on track, and a built-in diary to facilitate discussions about their treatment.

Tools for maintaining a close connection with patients affected by broader mental health conditions are also attracting a lot of interest. During the pandemic, Boehringer Ingelheim and Click Therapeutics announced the collaborative development of a prescription-based digital therapeutic tool for use in the treatment of schizophrenia, filling a gap in support for patients (while treatment guidelines recommend tailored psychosocial intervention therapies, it isn’t always easy for patients to access these interventions).

Gérard Klop, partner, Vintura

Although respecting patient confidentiality is paramount, companies providing digital solutions will automatically be capturing a wealth of real-world data which, as anonymised trend insights, could inform their own development and commercial strategies. These findings could also hold interest for clinicians, as pharma organisations look to foster trusted partnerships with healthcare providers.

If, via digital channels and tools (even if applied in the third line of care), pharma is able to identify when an initial or alternative treatment is failing, the benefits for the patient, healthcare provider and pharma could be considerable. That is if those insights could help trigger new, targeted intervention so that the affected patients are redirected in a timely fashion to a more effective therapy. A good example is in the case of autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s, where it is relatively common for resistance to therapies to build: close monitoring could help identify the point of drop-off or decline at an earlier stage, to everyone’s advantage.

Assessing opportunities in the context of brand strategy

To scope the potential, pharma companies need to look at the current care pathway and see where there might be an untapped opportunity to make a difference and improve the value for patients, linked to their own brand strategy and claims for their product. Guided by this all-important convergence of interests, they can start to design a solution to fill the identified gap.

As the new solution will require a different business model to established products, involving partnerships with both the care provider and a digital technology specialist, considerations will need to extend beyond the patent expiry on the core product (support cannot be suddenly withdrawn). Consideration must be given, too, to the scalability of the proposed solution: that is, how readily and efficiently it could be replicated across other hospitals/regions/countries.

Although it is still early days for traditional pharma’s involvement in digital health, and optimal delivery and partnership models are still being formulated, the evolving landscape is ripe with potential for those sufficiently agile and open to the emerging opportunities.

Gérard Klop is a partner at Vintura, which provides strategy consultancy to pharma and healthcare providers embracing transformation.

Dr Marcos Gallego Llorente is a senior consultant at Vintura, specialising in digital health, helping big pharma companies and hospitals hone their strategies to improve efficiency and give patients a better quality of life. He is also an adjunct professor at Madrid’s IE University in Spain.