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Session Recap: Digital Health—Early Successes for Investors and Biotech R&D Productivity

February 9, 2015
Digital health has the potential to improve the life science industry by combining traditional and novel medicines with digital technologies, enabling the life sciences to become more patient-centered as well as accelerating product discovery. There is growing interest in digital health among investors as new data and technologies become available that fill unmet needs in the marketplace.

At the 17th Annual BIO CEO & Investor Conference, a panel of digital health experts came together to share their perspectives on which sub-segments are gaining market traction, what innovators need to know about the unique regulatory challenges associated with digital health, and how public policy changes could transform health care for patients and biotechs alike.

Matthew Hudes, US Managing Principal of Biotechnology at Deloitte, moderated the panel. The panelists were:

  • Angela Bakker Lee, PhD, Partner, VP Healthcare, Global Business Services, IBM

  • Donald Jones, Co-Founder and Chairman, Wireless-Life Sciences Alliance; Chief Digital Officer of the Scripps Translational Science Institute; CEO, Trial Fusion

  • Julie Papanek, Principal, Canaan Partners

  • Ryan Pierce, Entrepreneur in Residence, Rock Health

  • Carolyne Zimmermann, Executive Director, Global Business Development & Licensing, Novartis Pharmaceuticals


Deloitte’s Hudes opened the discussion by asking the panelists to introduce themselves and their connection to digital health. Rock Health’s Pierce mentioned that he came from the digital device world, and would have been able to do much more if the advances in digital health available today were available back then.

There are two reasons that the life sciences are moving into the digital health space: it has the potential to connect patients with physicians and other health care professionals, and it helps to accelerate the development of new products by pharma companies.

One of the unique things about digital health is that products that collect critical health data can be made available directly to the consumer. Scripps’ Jones then showed the audience an example of a consumer device cost $199 and measures 8 different health metrics. He went on to say that these kinds of technologies offer a mutually beneficial relationship for life sciences companies and consumers. The benefit for the consumer is that they can have knowledge about their health at their fingertips, and companies that produce the technology can collect aggregated data about users to identify and recruit candidates for clinical trials.

The discussion then turned to the potential for health care that “go beyond the pill” and “provide a more holistic approach”. Novartis' Zimmermann said that digital health, from a pharma perspective, is affecting all aspects of her work. These technologies can help improve efficiency, and help the pharma industry connect with patients and physicians.

IBM's Bakker Lee explained that there are some cultural difficulties in pharma to adopt new technologies. She said, “We’re used to thinking of how technology can accelerate things instead of thinking about how technology can completely transform the process.”

Scripps’ Jones remarked that this boom in interest in the potential for digital health has been driven by the profusion of smartphones and mobile devices. The wearables market is expected to increase tenfold in the next decade. He said that the success or failure of a new digital health device depends a lot on how easy it is to incorporate into one’s routine and how much of a benefit the consumer sees in the device. He said, “A lot of these wearables are about prevention. What conditions are acute enough that they’d put up with the hassle of wearing something new? If you’re already carrying something around, like a smartphone, people are more likely to use them. We don’t know exactly what we need to track to effectively solve health problems on a mass scale. At least we can know the ‘norms and non-norms’ to know at least if someone’s biometric data is abnormal.” There is exciting potential to identify health issues in mass data and this could really transform the world of predictive analytics.

Scripps’ Jones predicts a model where the patient data from digital health technologies won’t go straight to the physicians, but will go through an intermediary company that will sort and interpret the data, which could open up a new space in digital health.

One example of a new, successful digital health program is the Walgreens app which makes it really easy for patients to get refills on their prescriptions. The app features a button that lets you refill your prescriptions and sends you reminders to take your medicine, which improves patient compliance.

Deloitte’s Hudes asked, “What’s the key to getting people to use a new digital health technology long term?” The panelists answered that if it’s easy and reduces some of the annoyance in the process patients have to go through to access health care, then people will use it.

The panelists discussed some example of new technologies that are gaining traction among patients, such as ZocDoc and FitBit, which is used by the elderly and millennials alike.

Deloitte’s Hudes wrapped up the discussion by asking, “What do you think will happen in the next 5 years in digital health?” Rock Health's Pierce answered that someone will become the big leader in digital therapeutics, but that we can’t say yet who it will be.