What will the pharmaceutical sector of tomorrow look like? Over the last few years, a number of inventive start-ups have been beavering away to undermine traditional business models in this sector. Just how digitalisation is likely to disrupt the pharmaceutical sector is now becoming increasingly clear.<p>In this series of articles, we discuss how we think this disruption will play out – what we are already seeing today and how we see this developing in the future. Following on from our first article, on mobile apps, this second article looks at wearables.</p>
Wearables in the pharmaceutical sector
Wearables are already well established in the sports and fitness sector, where they are used to record various physiological indicators. Fitness enthusiasts can analyse their data and performance using accompanying apps. As these wearables are not usually licensed medical devices, this data is not generally used for therapeutic purposes. Relatively new are wearables which are licensed as medical devices. Some require the user to have a smartphone or tablet, though nowadays that can pretty much be taken for granted anyway. The interesting point about the wearables presented here is that they are all intended to replace established drugs.
But the big question is: will these new wearables be accepted by patients? They are, after all, aiming to replace familiar, proven therapies. Will patients really be prepared to place their trust in these new types of therapy, instead of conventional, chemical drugs? Well, yes, we think they probably will, as digital medicine offers some notable advantages. The biggest advantage may be that wearables are likely to have fewer side effects than traditional, chemical medicine. In addition, wearables are relatively simple and straightforward to use. They may even prove to be more effective than existing therapies, as they allow the dose to be very precisely adjusted for the individual patient – much more so than, say, pills.
There are also other benefits which apply to digital medicine in general – providers can easily release updates, allowing them to react rapidly to any new medical discoveries. Apps can complement package inserts, providing patients with better information on their treatment and reducing anxiety. By providing reminders, apps can also help ensure that a therapy is used at the optimum time. Taken together, these benefits could lead to better treatment outcomes, leading to increased recommendations of such digital therapies.
Wireless headset that measures brainwaves
An example for such a digital therapy using a wearable is presented by NeuroPlus. The company is using innovative neurofeedback technology to help users improve their concentration. The aim is to enable people with ADHD to manage on fewer drugs or even, in consultation with their doctor, to come off drugs altogether. NeuroPlus uses carefully worded advertising and is not licensed as a medical device. The user wears a wireless headset that measures their brainwaves while they play a training game that challenges them to focus. The app comes in three different versions: Focus, Calm and Control.
NeuroPlus uses the mobile Apple and Android platforms to distribute its apps and updates free of charge. Users enter into a contract directly with NeuroPlus at a cost of $30 or $50 per month. As a result, the provider pockets all of the revenues with no further distribution costs.
Electronic wearables and other external devices that act on nerves
Livia is a wearable which features two skin contacts, placed on the abdomen, connected to a small device which can be attached to a belt. It is FDA approved and can reportedly completely suppress primary menstrual cramps. It uses abdominal nerve stimulation to prevent pain signals from the abdomen from being transmitted to the brain. Chemical painkillers, by contrast, are less local in their action, modulating pain sensitivity in the whole body.
According to one doctor quoted by Livia, “Over 50% of women suffer primary menstrual cramps, for which they consume large amounts of painkillers. Livia uses a pain relief method that does not involve drug consumption. The idea is to close the ‘pain gates’. The device stimulates the nerves, making it impossible for pain to pass. The method Livia uses has been proven effective in several clinical studies and I strongly recommend the use of the device to relieve PMS at any time.”
More about the solution: video from Livia on YouTube.
Medical device modifies pain memory
Bomedus relies on a similar concept. The company sells a range of belts for various body parts. The belts are worn against the skin and connect to a control unit via a cable. They are designed to permanently reduce acute and chronic pain. Tiny electrodes transmit fine electrical impulses directly under the skin. The aim is to calm pain fibres and modify pain memory – the pain is quite simply forgotten.
People with head and neck pain, for example, can treat themselves at home using the neck belt. Many migraine sufferers also benefit from using the neck belt. According to Bomedus, two short 20 minutes sessions daily for six to eight weeks produces a significant reduction in pain. The belts have been clinically tested and are CE marked.
Wearables for data mining and new business models
The wearables described above hold the promise of highly effective, targeted treatments with fewer side effects than conventional drugs. For patients, the benefits are obvious. But what about providers?
The main benefit is, of course, that by offering patients exciting, innovative new treatments, they gain a crucial competitive advantage. But wearables can also provide valuable data. This data can be used to offer a positive user experience – using tools such as chatbots, for example. Because almost all wearables have associated apps, they also pave the way for new distribution and payment models. Here, the pharmaceutical sector has the advantage of being able to learn from other industries which are further along the road to digitalisation.
Providers of wearables can gain an important edge over their competitors. Whilst this is unlikely to turn the sector on its head, it’s certainly going to lead to some lasting changes. If you want to know how pharmaceutical companies can meet this challenge and adapt their business models for digitalisation, you might like to attend my talk at the Health Meets Future Summit in Frankfurt on June 18, 2018