It was back in 1993, while I was studying to become a doctor, that I first dreamed of how computer science would transform medicine. At that time, ‘digital’ was in its early days, with the internet only just emerging and the appearance of social media still a decade away, but already I saw the potential for digital to radically disrupt healthcare.
Today, over 20 years later, I think we are finally reaching the point of ‘healthcare convergence’, where digital technology and traditional medicine are combining in a way that will forever change the way we manage health. This convergence has enormous implications and opportunities for the life sciences industry.
To understand why, and how, pharmaceutical, consumer health, medical devices and diagnostics companies all need to adapt, we should first explore the four stages of digital disruption that have led to this point.
The first stage of digital disruption, which began in the 1990s with the internet and early health-related websites and forums, was the democratisation of information. As online information and discussions about diseases and medical interventions became widely accessible, patients were no longer dependent on their doctors to provide the facts, and healthcare providers were no longer dependent on commercial companies and infrequent meetings with their peers for evidence on interventions. Medical information was now in the hands of the masses and it disrupted companies’ traditional sales, marketing and communication models.
The next step on the road to healthcare convergence was the era of ‘beyond-the-pill’ services. As life sciences companies reacted to information democratisation, they also realised the power of providing direct support to ensure their interventions delivered value to healthcare systems. This evolution has, of course, also been powered by the concurrent increased focus on ‘outcomes’ and ‘cost-effectiveness’ over simple clinical efficacy, safety and quality.
Today, going beyond-the-pill has seen traditional commercial players focus on websites, apps, social media, chatbots and so on, as ways of providing information and support to ensure patients understand their conditions and take medicines as prescribed. Alongside this, a whole new sector of digital agencies has been born to support this evolution, alongside specialist ‘out-of-the-box’ communication tools.
Data, data everywhere, but not a drop of insight? This is no longer the case in healthcare as the third wave of digital disruption accompanied the exponential growth of real-world data. A new field of digital epidemiology has emerged, with mobile applications that have the power to tap into real-world, real-time insights into the state of our health and how we manage medical conditions.
We have known for some time that there is a gap between an intervention’s clinical studies, which measure efficacy and safety in a broad, largely homogeneous population, and its real-world impact on individual patients with potentially very different characteristics. We now have the tools to track those individual patient characteristics – understanding patients at a level previously not possible. At the macro level, this ‘digital epidemiology’ is reshaping our understanding of specific conditions, but at a micro level it is also helping us to tailor interventions on a very personal basis.
Digital disruption has not stopped with the real-world, real-time data revolution. Technology is emerging that can go beyond helping to tailor individual traditional interventions, to potentially replace them. Early digital diagnosis, which is possible through digital epidemiology, can avert the need for downstream medicines, at least in the short term, but technology is also now competing with traditional medicines and devices in certain areas.
So, what does all of this mean for traditional healthcare players, the pharma, consumer health, devices and diagnostics companies? Will they go the same way as the Blockbuster video rental chain or photographic firm Kodak in the face of this digital revolution?
Not if they embrace healthcare convergence and work with this disruption!
The technology companies, which are driving this change, need the years of experience, understanding, commercial knowledge and reach of these traditional companies. Likewise, these traditional players need to embrace the innovation brought by new technologies, as they cannot acquire or build this expertise quickly enough internally.
The smart companies are therefore building digital innovation and incubation groups, designed to tap into this new ecosystem of health technology start-ups – to engage with them, mentor them, invest in them and work in synergy for mutual benefit.
The age of healthcare convergence is here, and it has brought two of my great passions – and two great sectors of industry – together: medicine and technology. Our health will be all the better for it.
Roberto Ascione is CEO of Healthware International. He is a regular keynoter at numerous conferences, has been president of the HealthTech Summit, and is founding advisor of the Digital Therapeutics Alliance and chairman at Frontiers Health, which emerged as one of the leading digital health conferences globally.