Will Big Pharma Provide Prescribable Apps?

FEBRUARY 15, 2015
While pharmaceutical companies are better known for pursuing the next big blockbuster drug, they are slowly being drawn into the world of mobile health (mHealth).

Big Pharma is eyeing mHealth as a potential market to help support its pharmaceutical products or treat select disease states. However, not everything is going well with current mobile production.

Last October, Research2Guidance (R2G) released a report that reviewed how mobile development has been progressing, and results were disappointing. After reviewing 725 apps by the top 11 pharma companies, R2G found that only 6.6 million downloads have occurred since 2008, with just 1 million active users at present.

Given the size of these companies and the investments they have made, those numbers are not ones to be proud of. That said, R2G identified noted that several companies have done well, while others are still trying.

Many of these shortcomings are likely due to the fact that many apps are targeted at niche markets, rather than a broad user base. Other issues include the global reach of these apps and finding a successful market, in addition to a non-uniform design process in which some companies employ multiple app developers with no concise branding.

Nevertheless, speculators of mHealth in Big Pharma foresee a time when companies will produce "prescribable" apps for select diseases of interest to make a sizable impact and financial gain. However, many of these apps may not directly be designed, but rather purchased from promising start-up developers.

An article in Forbes highlighted a number of start-up developers looking to make it big by creating mHealth apps that could benefit those with migraines or individuals looking to quit smoking, as well as building a gamified mechanism to identify patients at risk for dementia.

The biggest limiting factor to developing mHealth apps for clinical outcomes comes down to funding and proof-of-concept. Many companies will have to demonstrate that their apps actually provide some form of clinical benefit, which may require funding that is difficult to obtain from traditional start-up mechanisms. Instead, they will rely on government grants, which have steadily decreased in the past few years.

It will be interesting to see whether any company comes up with a new way to actualize mHealth and prove clinical benefit.

Timothy Aungst, PharmD
Timothy Aungst, PharmD
Timothy Dy Aungst, PharmD, is an associate professor of pharmacy practice at MCPHS University. He graduated from Wilkes University Nesbitt School of Pharmacy and completed a PGY-1 Pharmacy Practice Residency at St. Luke's University Hospital, and then a Clinical Geriatric Fellowship at MCPHS University. He is passionate about the rise of technology in health care and its application to pharmacy. He has published primarily on the role of mobile technology and mHealth, and made multiple national and international presentations on those topics. He blogs at TheDigitalApothecary.com, and you can find him on Twitter @TDAungst.