Paging Dr. Siri
Smart-phone apps are about to revolutionize medical care. These technologies can predict when cancer patients are about to relapse, detect rare side effects of experimental drugs, and prod patients to maintain healthy behaviors.
Pharmaceutical firms could temper widespread concerns about high drug prices by incorporating these technologies into treatment regimens. Doing so would unlock the full potential of existing treatments. It would result in healthier patients and lower medical spending.
Consider Moovcare, an app created by Israeli e-health company Sivan Innovation. The technology enables lung-cancer patients to log symptoms after surgery or chemotherapy, receive follow-ups, or set automatic reminders. If a patient logs a specific change in symptoms, Moovcare sends an email to his or her physician. This helps doctors quickly adjust treatment plans and predict likelihood of relapse.
Moovcare’s health benefits have proven remarkable in initial studies. An independent study published last year by French researchers found that the median overall survival rate of patients who used the Moovcare app was 19 months, versus 12 months for those on standard care. After one year, 75 percent of patients following up with Moovcare were still alive, compared to 49 percent in the standard follow-up group.
Apps can also speed up clinical trials, which currently take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to collect enough data to measure a drug’s efficacy and safety.
Health eHeart, a study out of UC San Francisco, aims to collect millions of data points and develop treatments that reduce deaths from heart disease. Participants use smartphones, tablets, and other devices to collect and input their own health data. They can snap a small device onto their smartphone to record electrocardiograms (ECG or EKG) with just the touch of their fingertips, or measure heart rates simply by holding their fingers over their smartphone cameras.
The apps also track participants’ eating, sleeping, and exercise patterns. That’s important. Patients often misremember or inaccurately report this type of health information to medical professionals. But when an app tracks it, researchers get a 360-degree view of patients’ health.
App-based studies can collect data from millions of participants worldwide, compared to a few thousand patients in most traditional clinical trials. This is big data of precision health. Those reams of data will enable researchers to draw much more rigorous conclusions — for instance, they could uncover rare side effects or realize that a treatment works better in certain demographic groups.
Drug companies are already integrating these technologies into treatment regimens. Merck and Amazon’s first joint initiative, the Alexa Diabetes Challenge, is a call for entrepreneurs and technological researchers to create personalized, voice-enabled reminders and recommendations for patients with Type 2 diabetes. For example, Alexa, Amazon’s personal home assistant artificial intelligence, could remind patients to take their insulin or to exercise each day.
Using apps and artificial intelligence assistants like Alexa could help patients take their medicines on schedule and as directed. Medical non-adherence — skipping or forgetting doses, or taking the wrong dose — costs Americans up to $300 billion each year due to increased sickness and hospitalizations. At least 10 percent of all hospitalizations and nursing home admittances are prompted by non-adherence. The problem claims 125,000 American lives each year.
Given that the end goal is ensuring patients’ health and access to the best treatment options, pharmaceutical companies should continue to invest in technologies that ensure patients reap the most benefit possible from their medications. Harnessing the power of new apps and other technologies can help them do so, reducing costs and saving millions of lives in the process.
Sandip Shah is the founder and president of Market Access Solutions, a global market access consultancy, where he develops strategies to optimize patient access to life-changing therapies. Vidya Ramesh is a director at the same company.