PharmaPhorum: “Are mobile apps an opportunity for pharma? Not likely”

Richard Meyer, Director, World of DTC Marketing, writes at PharmaPhorum about how the time is not yet here for mHealth:

My thoughts:

There has been a lot of talk about mobile health and mobile apps, but the reality is that mobile health apps for smartphones are way at the bottom of the list of apps that consumers download. Why is this happening and is there a future for mobile apps and pharma? Insights from research I recently led indicate that there are some people who would use mobile health apps, but most consumers don’t want or need them

This conflicts with what I’m seeing with European smartphone owning patients who are on prescription meds. Here it’s very common to find patients are using native applications to help manage their health eg. the alarm feature to remind them to take a pill, the Facebook App to interact with their informal carers (normally friends/family), the Calendar to set appointment reminders, etc.

Marketing data from Nielsen and others clearly show that health apps are not even on the radar of downloaded applications for smartphones

A lot of this is because convergence to the mobile means that any popular stand alone app will be under the threat of obsolescence because mobile device makers are hungry to take whatever they can native so that they can differentiate the experience they offer customers.

Today it’s getting hard to find a smartphone that doesn’t let me create a folder in my photo gallery to store pics of my moles, doesn’t come preloaded with a navigation/maps, doesn’t let me set calendar reminders with a few button pushes, that doesn’t let me click a URL in a SMS to open and play a YouTube video, that has a native camera app that doesn’t feature things like QR code readers, smile detection, etc.

My client wanted to better understand “why” this was happening and so we set off to talk to some consumers in four cities within the US. Our focus groups consisted of both young and old, but the summary of insights told a story that helped clarify why consumers don’t want to download mobile health apps. Among the key finding from our research was that consumers don’t have the time to learn new apps and, for some health conditions, don’t want to be reminded that they have health issues

I think this sums up why the mHealth opportunity presents such a challenge to Richard. With his role as a consultant to pharma brands the mHealth challenge he faces is more than likely trying to build relevance and enthusiasm for their brands amongst patients.

A big lesson for the pharma industry is that patients don’t necessarily want or trust the brand that markets their drug because in most cases they’re only taking it because of the trust they place in their Doctors advice. When we’re talking about the most personal digital device a patient owns any lack of trust is going to be a major issue.

Obviously patients have a very different level of trust and interest in mobile engagement with their care provider and evidence for this can be found by looking at situations where the app has been provided by the care provider and we see much greater levels of engagement eg. Kaiser Permanente found more than 10% of their total patient population used their mobile app in the first month that it was made available.

It’s to the point that people think I’m having a personal relationship with my iPhone I don’t need more applications that don’t add a lot of value especially when I can just go to a website to get the information I need… … there are some people who would use mobile health apps but most consumers don’t want or need them

What this says to me is that the value and quality of the apps that these patients are using is low and that the challenge is adding value.

We had a similar situation in the mobile market just before the iPhone arrived. Many people (and highly regard researchers) could be heard stating conclusively that there was no need for most people to have a smartphone eg. a few months before the launch of the iPhone O2 UK published research that showed beyond a shadow of doubt the thing most customers wanted most in their next mobile was “extra battery life”.

Obviously we all know now that they didn’t really jump at that once Steve Jobs moved counter to the assumption and predicted what they’d really want.

Another woman, who is diabetic, talked about an app that let her review menu choices at popular restaurants but she said “it was always out of date, so what good is it?”

This reminds me of Louis CK’s explanation of how we’re now so ungrateful about things that we Like didn’t even know existed 5 minutes ago.

Perhaps this customer would find more value in an educational website or some mobile videos that could provide her with a balanced education about making food choices and strategies for eating out rather than hoping for unreliable last minute influences to leap to her rescue.

How about general health apps? Many said they would use apps that track how many calories they burn while walking, running or biking, but many said they simply don’t have the time to learn another mobile app and input data all the time

If you look to more advanced mobile markets like Japan you’ll see that device makers have already tackled this problem by natively embedding pedometer features into mobiles. This way it just works out of the box and the user has nothing to learn.

By 2015 you can be assured Apple will be doing this (at the moment it’s making a lot more money by letting customers choose and buy one for themselves) but perhaps it’ll happen much sooner eg. if Google baked a pedometer app into the navigation app in it’s next update of Android Apple would be forced to play catch-up with some USP pedometer app features of it’s own.

The one group who did seem to see value in mobile apps for health were caregivers of type 1 diabetics. They want to know that family members under their care are checking and taking their medication as needed. It’s a big worry for them and they want more tools to help them alleviate the stress of caring for loved ones

Possibly this has got more to do with the type of patients that the research studied. The care for patients with type 1 diabetes remains quite burdensome and a failure to monitor can obviously lead to significant consequences (eg seizures, unconsciousness, ER visits, etc) but it’s also important to appreciate that the parents of children affected by T1 Diabetes are much more likely to have a smartphone than many other patient groups.

We’ve seen that this have a knock on effect because it creates an expectation that might not exist amongst patients who still don’t use mobile services but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an appetite for mHealth in these groups eg. I’ve been involved in the setting up of advanced M2M systems (eg. Smoke/CO Alarms, Care Monitors, etc) in the homes of very senior and disabled patients who have never used a smartphone and they’ve been a massive leap forward in helping these patients live independently and as a source of reassurance to their carers/loved ones.

Is there an opportunity for pharma? That was the key question for the research and the answer is not right now. Pharma and biotech companies are not organized to support the development of health applications and ongoing updates as new operating systems are updated. It requires an ongoing investment and long term relationship with an application technology company that can design apps around how consumers want and need them

Obviously over the last decade mobile phones have completely transformed the retail environment for the pharma industry but I think it’s fair to say that if by 2015 the way you interact with customers isn’t primarily via mobile your pharma brand will be obsolete. By 2020 mHealth will completely define the pharma brands that demise or rise.

Clearly then putting mHealth on the long finger is about the worst bit of advice I can imagine the pharma industry considering.

In short it’s going to require time, money and additional resources at a time when pharma is cutting budgets. One can only imagine the weeks and months of meeting needed to get approval to develop an app, not to mention how the app can produce ROI for the brand. It seems that a lot of agencies see app development as a way to generate new business (my client was being pushed by their digital marketing agency to develop a health app), but given consumers reluctance to download and use health apps dollars can and should be spent elsewhere

This is a fair point. If your Pharma brands mHealth strategy is something you’ve delegated to an outside agency or an executive who is powerless to act you might as well hang up your coat now.

The smart pharma brands are already making top down announcements (eg. asides from the countless pharma branded and pharma sponsored apps in the appstores Boehringer recently announced it’s tie up with a mHealth app developer as being part of it’s “beyond the pill” approach to healthcare, JnJ referred to mHealth as “a promising opportunity that we should all embrace”, etc) and if you have your ear to the ground like me you’ll be hearing things that would have been unthinkable 6 months ago (eg. a Senior Marketing Director at Sanofi recently told me that they now think of themselves as an “Apple Company”).

…consumers don’t have the time to learn new apps and, for some health conditions, don’t want to be reminded that they have health issues

I find it hard to imagine how anyone with any healthcare experience could say this. Perhaps Richard needs to experience some clinical practice or get involved as a primary carer.

In my world if I want to learn about mHealth Apps I go talk to patients. If you’re also confused about the capacity patients have to learn about mobile experiences it might help you to reflect on this picture I took of a blind man fixing a technical issue on the iPhone of a Space X Scientist…

Even with the findings from this research, the time is coming when medical devices and health applications are going to tightly integrate home health. Patients could, for example, come home and use a device which could measure their blood pressure, blood work, weight and send it all to a health application for them to track while also sending the results to their doctor

Of course we live in a world where this future is here already it’s just not evenly distributed. 9 million patients at Kaiser Permanente can do this already 24×7 on their mobile phone or PC. Microsoft HealthVault makes it possible for those who don’t have such a forward thinking care provider.

However, that time is not yet here and pharma companies have a long way to go to earn patients’ trust and belief that they have patients’ best interests at heart

I’m surprised that Richard thinks the end game for Pharma brands is that they need to make patients believe that they have their “best interests at heart”.

If that is their objective have they really got any time to lose? Surely in this hyperconnected world where we know Communities Dominate Brands having someone’s best interests at heart isn’t really something you can pull off if it’s something that you plan to start doing at some set date in the future, is it?

Can you imagine all the early implementation lessons and customer feedback that you’d miss out on by delaying your mHealth product development?

My take away

I think this discussion highlights the need to approach mhealth with a understanding of mobile as the newest mass media as it’s a only then that you can appreciate that:

> Today’s smartphone is tomorrow’s feature phone and like it or not but you’ve already got a smartphone

> Patients aren’t keen on mhealth because they think it’s a good way to help pharma brands build profitable relationships with them.

> If you want to use digital tech to care for patients The time to be considering the mHealth opportunity has already passed: Of the 7 Billion people alive there are already 5.9 Billion active mobile phone subscriptions (4B unique users, 4.8B handsets in use today), SMS text messaging is now more popular than Voice (5B Vs 4.9B users respectively), MMS has 2.5B active users (more than the total of people who access the internet by any method), 1.8B access the internet via Mobile (only 400 million do it exclusively via the PC Vs. 800 million who access it exclusively via a mobile phone), etc

> The lack of appreciation of mHealth by the Pharma industry doesn’t mean the opportunity doesn’t exist it just means that those who do understand it have got a massive headstart. Even if you think of pharma just as the providers of the packaging that patients carry they’re obviously very well placed to add massive value in this space but failure to innovate is the most surefire way to let the cannibal of cannibals disrupt your market with innovations like Mobile AR that might just completely bypass your efforts.

> Change is inevitable but progress is not, Pharma brands should start with the basics: Today in the USA 24% of all prescriptions in the USA aren’t even being filled so can you imagine the potential for even basic things like SMS reminders/feedback loops?

About David Doherty
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3 Responses to PharmaPhorum: “Are mobile apps an opportunity for pharma? Not likely”

  1. As we continue to say that mobile apps are not ready for prime time, consumers, other countries, and some healthcare stakeholders are adopting them and passing those commentators by. While it is true that Pharma has been tightening the budgets, mHealth is relatively cheap and will have a significant ROI. There are reasons for which I believe they must immediately adopt some mHealth strategy: As stated, mHealth need not be fancy programs or even require a smartphone.

  2. Pingback: Is there too much hype in the mHealth app world? « mHealth Insight: the blog of 3G Doctor

  3. Pingback: KP releases video showcasing it’s mHealth vision of the future of Healthcare « mHealth Insight: the blog of 3G Doctor

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