Medical Affairs: Future Custodians of Digital Health?

Medical Affairs: Future Custodians of Digital Health?

August 10, 2019

Organizations should take a strategic approach to digital health solutions and also treat them with the same level of rigor applied to traditional therapies.


We are living in a data-driven digital world, and the pharmaceutical industry has not been immune to the multi-billion dollar promise that digital therapeutics holds. Within the industry, the consensus is that it is a case of when, not if, digital health solutions become the norm.

The phrases digital health, health technology, mHealth and digital therapeutics have taken their place in the pharma vernacular. And as the paradigm shift towards the ubiquity of digital health solutions continues apace, Medical Affairs must once again reflect on its own evolving role and consider how it can drive digital health by innovating and creating.

Improving outcomes

According to Alex Butler, co-founder of Foundry³ the future value of digital is going to be the use of technology to improve clinical outcomes, patient outcomes and to help healthcare professionals improve the provision of care.

The linear approach of a “pill for every ill” has been expanded immeasurably by the application of mobile health, digital health and digital therapeutic solutions, Butler tells Elevate. Addressing key health challenges of the 21st century such as chronic disease, access to care, health inequalities and ageing populations, becomes not only possible but accessible and affordable.

 “The ubiquity of mobile devices now means that we have an opportunity through these digital technologies to improve health outcomes: through basic communication services, but also highly innovative services with regard to tracking and sensor development, measurement of biometrics and delivery of medical services.” He suggests that the vision for digital health is nevertheless relatively straightforward: “It’s not just about providing information, but rather providing integrated services that are proven to improve clinical outcomes.”

Digital therapeutics, Butler adds, are prescribable digital programs or interventions that should be shown to improve outcomes. “They’re called therapeutics because they already have some form of evidence base behind them in a more traditional sense, mostly because they’ve derived out of cognitive behavior therapy and mindfulness where there’s already a lot of evidence for these programs.”



Proliferation of applications

The sheer velocity of the digital revolution means that in in recent years we have seen not only more advanced capability, but increased application in areas of previously unmet need. Metabolic disorders, psychiatric disorders, and cardiovascular health, among others, have seen their management transformed dramatically by digital health solutions, notes Butler.

Health technology companies, academia, HCPs, and patients – as well as pharmaceutical companies – are delivering these digital solutions successfully. Butler highlights a couple of examples, including GlycoLeap’s diabetes system. “This tracks the obvious things like your activity, your nutrition, your glucose levels and your body mass index, but also combines it with a behavioral psychologist and nutritionist that you can access at any time. Basically, you get a personalized diabetes management program through your smartphone app, which would never have been dreamed about 10 years ago.”

There’s also Omron’s smartwatch which measures blood pressure with clinical accuracy at the push of a button. “This can actually take your blood pressure through the watch strap alone and you can link it to AliveCor, an FDA-cleared medical-grade EKG”.

“Essentially, an everyday person can have what would have been not really possible outside of a cardiology department on them all of the time in their own home.” Even if this was available years ago, it would have cost tens of thousands of pounds, he adds.



Three-part strategic approach

The key role of Medical Affairs in driving the proliferation of these solutions necessitates a strategic approach. According to Butler, a model of clinical significance, behavioral change and user need must be applied to the development of digital health initiatives.

“Certainly, in the early days of strategically designing any kind of program or initiative, a requirement is that there’s clinical relevance. The days of just ticking a box, or even more than ticking a box, just providing information to patients about the disease through a different channel or on the phone (as opposed to a leaflet) is not really the point of what we’re trying to do with this.”

People tend not to respond to information; rather, the vast majority of decisions in healthcare are emotional decisions and Butler contends that we need contextual support in order to fundamentally change our behavior. Proven clinical outcomes – as well as patient outcomes, which he says are “at least as important” – must therefore be an inherent part of the digital health offering.

Behavioral change is another essential element. Butler explains that in the majority of digital health interventions, particularly in the management of chronic disease, the focus is on trying to help people to slightly modify or change their behavior. “Which, sometimes at least, can drastically improve outcomes. Again, if the program doesn’t have a genuine element of behavioral change in there, or you don’t understand what behaviors you’re trying to modify or support, then it’s probably a red flag that it’s unlikely to be successful.”

User need is the third and final part of this strategic approach, and although it seems obvious, Butler says it can often be omitted completely.

“What’s the actual value for the individual, patient or, more importantly, person that’s using this tool? Even if it’s easy to understand why the pharmaceutical company or even the healthcare professional might want someone to do something, it’s not always obvious why you, as a person, would want to partake in a lot of these things.”

He reels off examples of digital health being superfluous at best, pointless at worst: “data entry systems, diary systems without any obvious value, requirements to complete tasks with degenerative diseases without any kind of user value or interventions that can actually improve your outcome.”

Even with a strategic approach, there are inherent challenges for any pharmaceutical company developing any kind of digital solution. Ultimately, an initiative should be sustainable for that particular organization, and must be given adequate investment of both time and resources, Butler advises. “If you’re not doing something that is sustainable for your organization or meeting your commercial objectives, then it’s unlikely to have any traction over any period of time. Obviously, we know that these things need investment, care and nurturing over years, not just the scope of one motivated person. For example, if you’re working in a disease area where for clinical trial purposes you would like to be able to better track outcomes and you can use digital health tools to do that, then that’s obviously going to be sustainable, especially if you have a long pipeline in the disease area, or it’s incredibly important that you do everything you can to help people stay on the medication, or not to relapse in a condition.”


Medical uniquely equipped to lead digital development

Butler agrees the future custodians of the vast majority of high-level digital investment will be Medical Affairs and says they must take an active interest in driving the strategy and the implementation of these programs. “At the very least, Medical has to have a key involvement, because this is talking in many ways about doing the same things that you would do for a medicine with regards to bringing that scientific rigor into the design of the program and into the evidential proof that these things have an impact on patients.”

This poses both ethical and compliance challenges, says Nicholas Broughton, an independent consultant in pharmaceutical ethics and compliance. For some in Medical Affairs roles, the word “digital” immediately evokes thoughts of banner adverts, one-too-many email campaigns, or health professional websites seen as commercial tasks that require medical review and approval, he tells Elevate.

“The problem is that this ‘one-bucket’ perspective on digital means that the ‘commercial produce/medical review’ approach is extended into digital activities where it is not appropriate. Provision of digital health solutions is one such area. To me, these are health interventions that solve problems for patients and there is a very clear analogy with the health interventions we call medicines. We have a moral duty to protect patients using such interventions from harm, respect their autonomy and maximize the benefit they can gain.”

Broughton echoes Butler, saying if something is being developed digitally to improve patient care, then it must be understood what the need is, how to prove benefit and how to avoid harm. The ethical implications must be crystal clear. “We can’t afford, as an industry, to provide health interventions that have flaky reasoning, no proven value and which may misinform or mislead and threaten patient safety.”

Yet he is adamant that despite the myriad ethical and compliance obstacles, Medical Affairs are uniquely equipped to lead the development and introduction of digital health solutions in all their guises.

“The skills and knowledge to develop useful interventions and prove they work and are appropriately safe – be they medicines or digital health solutions – lie in the medical and development functions in pharma. By all means, let our marketing colleagues provide ideas and input and promote what we produce, but scientists and health professionals in industry must lead development.”