Digital health is growing exponentially. Its potential for positively impacting health outcomes is mind boggling. Yet, multiple obstacles continue to stand in the way of its success – from lack of process to limited data analytics capabilities, to gaps in skills and strained financial resources.

How can we better realize the promise of digital health and overcome the many challenges we face in today’s health marketing environment? This was one of the fundamental questions addressed at the recent Digital Health for Pharma (DH4P) conference held over two days in Philadelphia. This inaugural, intimate gathering of over 150 senior pharma and healthcare digital specialists across multiple disciplines is the result of a well-executed partnership between event organizers ExL Events and the esteemed marketing innovation and strategy consultancy, Evolution Road. Chaired by well-known industry veteran, Paul Ivans, participants set out to tackle the major issues hindering the success of digital health.

First, the true definition of “digital” in the healthcare space was explored. This disparate group of industry experts took a top-to-bottom approach; They evaluated several digital assets and analytics, discussed digital therapeutics, and covered topics, such as wearables and beyond. The consensus? Panelists felt that often, technology-solutions providers focus on the latest technology or on how something works rather than the importance of why someone is using it. Regardless of where you stand on its definition, technology should solve a specific business need, and ultimately, deliver better health outcomes. Easier said than done, as we all still need to deal with the realities of pharma – market dynamics, such as a slow pace of change, myopic business plans that work on 12-month cycles, rotating clients, and financial constraints.

Fortunately, this gathering of experts considered not just the ambitious aspects of digital health, but also, many of the practical approaches on how to deal with these issues. Some suggestions included:

  • Be useful together; gather your team and champions internally around the business problem
  • Think of technology as one dimension to solve the business problem
  • Incremental progress is OK if it allows you get to the root of the solution faster
  • Forget the pilot and focus on the “Killer Experiment*,” according to Nancy Phelan of Adhera Therapeutics, this allows you to live or die on a project’s success quickly
  • Use both successes and failures as learning points to move forward
  • Healthcare is changing and our customers are demanding even more, but with frequent personnel moves and diminishing resources, we need to act faster and smarter

Another topic tackled in the meeting included Customer-Centric Modeling – the concept of bringing new success metrics to the forefront as we devise creative solutions around our customers’ experiences.  Barbara Salami of Bristol Myers Squibb, suggested some questions to ask yourself when bringing this concept to life:

  • Did you elevate the customer voice?
  • Did you accomplish what you set out to?
  • How easy was it to use?
  • How did it make you feel?
  • What was your intent? 

These questions are a great starting place as you begin the process of incorporating digital health into your marketing mix. The panel discussion around Digital Therapeutics brought the benefits of this notion to light. This digital health management approach uses technology to manage medical or psychological conditions and helps improve health outcomes, the patient experience, and ultimately, drives brand success. Digital therapeutics should be treated as integral to your business plan, not treated as toys or simply as marketing programs. James Musick of UCB lamented on how marketers often go wrong in their approach. For example, when vendors enter in pushing for solution to a problem that may or may not exist. Consideration needs to be given upfront on what the program or application is trying to accomplish and how it relates to the overall business, not to mention how the solution fits into a compensation structure or reimbursement model, especially since 99% of care happens at home, according to Christine Weir of Highmark Health.

Timing is also a key factor when implementing a digital health initiative. Melina Decker, former Head of Oncology and Immunology, Digital Therapeutics at AstraZeneca, emphasized that you can never start too early when thinking about digital therapeutics. She related how the regulatory process often required independent or concurrent regulatory approval which can slow down the overall approval process. Other panelists cautioned on focusing too much on the “coolness factor” and not enough on how it benefits the patient/customer and the overall business.  A relevant literary reference made for this is Mark Twain’s approach of spending 55 minutes on the problem and five minutes on the solution.

The day concluded with a reinforcement of Evolution Road’s Five Pillars of Digital Health Value for Life Sciences: “Invest, Incubate/Accelerate, Commercialize, Collaborate, and Co-develop by bringing together experts representing Pharma, Payers, Digital, Investors, Medical Affairs and Communications. While the conference never definitively arrived on a consensus statement regarding the true definition of “digital” in the healthcare space, senior leaders were able to collaborate and share experiences, both positive and negative, and challenge each other’s thinking and commitment on how we should do business to improve health outcomes for our patients and customers. Change doesn’t come quickly, but by setting proper goals and expectations, we will get there. Can’t wait to see what DH4P tackles next year!

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Sharon brings a unique blend of traditional values, innovative thinking and entrepreneurial spirit to the businesses she builds and manages. She is a healthcare marketing innovator spanning the spectrum of Account/Digital/Data Analytics/MedEd/Media for an omni-channel approach to true integrated programming. Sharon parlayed her twenty plus years’ experience as a managing partner at Osprey, an award-winning video and digital production company to the acquisition to ghg/WPP in 2008. Joining ghg in 2008, she continued to push the envelope, looking at ways to both expand and humanize the customer experience both offline and online. She is currently focused on leveraging healthcare data and analytics into the marketing mix as the Chief Creative Officer at Medikly. Sharon is a long-time professional supporter the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, rated in the top 1% of all non-profits, the JED Foundation for the prevention of teenage suicide, and the Healthcare Businesswoman’s Association. Sharon is a graduate of Emory University with a BA in History. She is very community minded and active in several community organizations and charities outside of work.