For healthcare, a digital inflection point; for healthcare marketers, more headaches

June 2, 2017 Matthew Arnold

Yesterday I had a nice long soak in the 355-slide depths of online oracle Mary Meeker’s annual Internet Trends deck. This year’s offering doesn’t have a ton of really new news – the decline of old media incumbents and the rise of India and China as powerhouses of online innovation continue apace, smartphones have hit a saturation point in many markets, etc. But Meeker & Co. did garner some headlines with a section entitled “Healthcare @ Digital Inflection Point.”  

This is noteworthy, in part, because Meeker hasn’t shown digital health a ton of love in the past, as Mobihealthnews points out, so it’s an affirmation of the exciting work that many are engaged in in this space. But my main takeaway was the breakneck speed at which these technologies are developing. Meeker asks: Could digital health follow tech like rapid adoption curves? The deck heralds a “Virtuous cycle of innovation” for digital health in which “innovation cycle times are compressing,” progressing us toward a kind of health care singularity via:

  • Exponential growth of medical knowledge, which, measured by PubMed citations, has gone from doubling every 50 years in 1950 to doubling every 3.5 years in 2010;
  • A proliferation of health data and data sources, with worldwide health data growing 48% annually, per IDC/EMC 2013 figures, thanks in part to consumer adoption of wearables and, in the U.S., a massive policy-driven expansion of health IT infrastructure and patient access to data;
  • New applications for health data, including tools for disease management and adherence (e.g., Propeller Health’s smart inhalers or Livongo’s diabetes coaching), preventive health (Omada and Kinsa), population health and personalized medicine (Ayasdi’s collaboration with Mercy Health, or Flatiron’s with Foundation Med).

Emerging technologies such as AI, machine learning and neural networks, voice assistants, telemedicine and ubiquitous sensors promise to accelerate these trends, unlock new frontiers in genomic medicine, and speed up clinical trials, hastening development of targeted therapeutics. Already, the number of personalized medicines on the market has risen from 5 in 2008 to 132 in 2016, according to the Personalized Medicine Coalition.

All this is very exciting news for medical science and human health, but it adds to the bewilderingly-long to do list facing healthcare marketers – many of whom are only just beginning to get their arms around digital. Now, to realize Meeker’s virtuous cycle – of collecting data, wringing actionable insights out of it, translating those insights into therapeutics, measuring outcomes and iterating based on those measures -- they must add data science to their toolkits.

This is one of the themes we’re hearing in interviews for an upcoming report which surveys execs leading pharma brand teams and digital centers of excellence to get a feel for how the industry is progressing toward digital maturity and where the barriers are. The need for insights-driven iteration is broadly understood, but many teams lack the tools and technical expertise to make it happen. “There’s a lot of confusion around the difference between digital and IT,” one exec conceded.

The good news for healthcare marketers is that there’s plenty of room for digital innovation. Elsewhere in her deck, Meeker describes how India is “leapfrogging” other countries in digital adoption – by getting in on the ground floor of mobile with sophisticated digital payment and authentication, for example. Encumbered by a heavily-regulated environment, pharmas have lagged other industries in providing a personalized online experience. But the explosion of health data and use cases for emerging technologies opens up opportunities for pharma brands to do some leapfrogging of their own. 

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