To “Pharma app” or not to “Pharma app”, then there’s the “IT” question!

Posted on Posted in Mobile

Over the last 20 years I’ve heard huge numbers of people get really excited about the latest fad. As a digital evangelist I guess that is to be expected. But are “mobile apps” (in Pharma) any different?

Simply put, no (but read on until the end, there is a twist).

Personally I love the Gartner hype graph. It really does fit the cycles that technologies go through (where innovation overtakes conventional wisdom). The bit that really gets me excited though is the part coming out of the trough of disillusionment. This is where we see a more mature understanding and approach, and the headless chickens have already run off to the next buzz word, leaving the professionals to industrialize solutions.

Currently I’d say mobile apps, in the Pharma industry, are on the rapid slide down after the big hype. We’ll see many (more) projects die painful and internally mediatized deaths, as the true value propositions start to appear. This is also the phase when we need to anchor mobile value into the bigger picture of multi-channel engaging communication, where Pharma starts changing how it sees its customers with some serious behavioral (and budget) changes associated. If we do not achieve this now then mobile might take another 5 years to mature within Pharma.

But for now lets assume that we’re looking for a shorter-term business case of a marketing driven mobile app initiative.

Initially this type of project seems like it should be easy to define and execute. In reality the environment in which we work will dictate otherwise, meaning that we should not go into this with our eyes shut just because our trusted agency recommended an app project.

Firstly we need to ask the question:

Why build an app in the first place?

We need to do the leg-work (market research + mingling, spending actual time with the customer) to really understand the activity, concerns, and real needs of our target audience.

Now lets assume that we’ve identified some real unmet need out there, and that the best way of addressing that unmet need is a mobile app. OK, we’re now getting excited here.

But before running off and asking an agency to start developing there are some more important questions to be asked, such as:

Is Pharma a credible stakeholder in providing this app/service?

Surprisingly, the answer to this question is not always no! (yes, we’re getting excited again)

Among the plethora of different actors out there Pharma can have a valid reason to provide an “app” to a target audience. Please check that your app fits this scope though, otherwise it will be a huge waste of time and money (and possibly brand reputation). Check out the thousands of medical apps already out there that have already been developed and tested by doctors – some really good Pharma apps do exist (great source: iMedicalApps).

If it already exists have you considered partnering (might not sound so exciting as building your own, but might also save some big headaches, and they probably already know your customer base needs better than you).

Also remember that there are other trusted healthcare stakeholders that already have quite complex medical apps (such as MedScape) – check with your brand team that their great idea is not already infront of a doctor on his trusted third party (I’ve had this scenario several times – brand team comes up with idea, I open Medscape and the famous “calculator” is already there!).

Assume all this leg-work has now been done.

So now we know that there is an unmet need that an app can bring a solution too, and Pharma is the right player to bring it to the target audience.

What next?

Strategic framing

I can’t stress these next points enough:

  1. Clearly define the objectives and what you want to acheive (behavioral change, visibility…)
  2. Define/align the measurables needed (and make sure you can actually measure them)
  3. Define what types of “actionables” will arise and review feasibilities of scenarios
  4. Define the apps lifespan timelines (and numbers of updates or refurbishments)
  5. Define the business owner (and not IT owner)

OK, can we now brief the agency….not quite yet!

There are a bunch of additional considerations that you need to be aware of that should be clearly articulated and defined upstream. Many of these involve discussions with IT (what type of architecture, native vs web vs…), Quality (documentation, script testing…), Medical (is this actually a medical device…), Regulatory (which guideline does this refer to???), Privacy (you are actually going to track people, do they know…) internal partners (unless you already have all inclusive procedures already written).

OK, now I’m actually arriving at the topic that I wanted to focus this article on, but got carried away with all the important stuff above (that I tend to take for granted).

How to choose the best solution for this app

Here is a rough guide to what should be covered or questioned. Clearly each project is slightly different, so don’t shoot me if your case does not fit exactly (but feel free to add comments with additional constructive criticism). Often it is advisable to go through this with your business integrator (and digital team) first to firm up your ideas.

1. Define the requirements of the app

  • What the “app” should/should not do (functionality)
  • Are enhanced user experiences required (aka. do you need to use the accelerometer, camera, agenda…)
  • Should it be platform/device specific, multiple platform/device, or device agnostic
  • Does the app require offline access (by the way, the 5MB story has solutions)
  • Does content need to be PW protected
  • Do you need detailed tracking and analytics
  • Is monitoring support available
  • ….

2. Think about how you are going to promote and distribute your app

(AppStore, Marketplace, Reps, Banners, eMails, congresses, Portals, partners…)

If you’ve got this far and have all the answers then it is a simple issue to decide which route to take.

Mobile app options

  1. Mobile optimized website

    (another debate here between having “segments” of your old site optimized for mobile, vs two distinct sites vs responsive by design websites vs… – great article on this over on Dose of Digital)

  2. Native app

    (iOS, Android…. forget the rest, even Windows 8 mobile for at least a year)

  3. HTML5 web app

    (can do almost everything a native app can, but not 100% as fast/smooth, and has some limitations, but some serious advantages in Pharma)

  4. Hybrid app

    (smaller niche use in Pharma, but in certain cases might be the right choice)

So why have I not added a decision tree here to help make sense of all the above?
(sounds simple enough!)

Well, your IT team will definitely have their own angle on these issues and internal hoops to jump through, technological leaps are common so some factors can change dramatically in importance in a very short period of time. And hey, maybe you’ll ask specialist independent consultants to help out with your specific cases too now that you’ve understood (hopefully) some of the complexities involved with mobile!

Any constructive feedback is more than welcome on this article (please fill in form at bottom of this page). Looking forward to hearing from you.

So now for the twist:

The apps are not the breakthrough, but they are changing how Pharma interacts with the different stakeholders in ways that Pharma has not yet woken up too. Just look at the tens of thousands of apps on the links provided in this article, and then consider that there was over 1B$ spent in Healthcare start-ups last year alone in the US (and Europe is not that far behind, not forgetting China and other BRIC countries that can leapfrog here). These players are all trying to capture the attention of our target audience in ways and on a scale in which we have never been confronted before, potentially pushing Pharma further from the “trusted partner” position it once had. Their business models are hugely different, with many working on interfacing technology, HCP workflow, EHR, patient & professional communities, gamification, big data etc. and also bringing into the equation the human adoption of these, gathering critical acceptance from the numerous stakeholders.

My cut on this is that 90% of these will not survive, but they will leave a mark and change our landscape forever. If Pharma is to regain credibility and  trust to be considered a worthy partner we need to be in on the ride, rather than observing from the sidelines. And we need to be smart about it. Pharma is all about investing wisely and managing the pipe. That mentality should stretch beyond our product R&D, where mobile might be part of the equation.

17 thoughts on “To “Pharma app” or not to “Pharma app”, then there’s the “IT” question!

  1. Sven,
    I share some of your skepticism and certainly more about the implementation of apps in Pharma. I wrote a piece which I think you might find interesting: I don’t think Pharma should be in the app development or management business and partnering with the right people is key. I also believe that patient engagement will necessitate apps, and the decrease in accessibility to physicians and providers is also impetus to develop these communication and more importantly marketing tools.

    1. David,
      Thanks for your contribution.
      I do hear where you are coming from, and agree to an extent. From working with Pharma across Europe as part of a digital advisory board to a top-10 Pharma company I see many “apps” being proposed. There are cases where such contributions do add value as long as they provide a balanced tool that actually is useful to the doctor/patient/caregiver.
      An additional important piece of information is that the “patient” and the “doctor” (at least over here in Europe) does not want to pay anything, and expects the state to provide solutions for healthcare. The state in most countries is however broke, leaving an opening for Pharma to help out. The trick is to be hyper focused/selective, be sure that you add real value (not just a new campaign for 6 months to generate buzz), know what you are going to measure (clearly defined objectives etc.), and be flexible and prepared for the long-run.
      Then there is the big question that is leering around the corner that will raise it’s head soon in a big way – classification of apps : is it a medical device or not.
      Oh what fun!

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