Advances in digital technology are giving rise to a ‘Digital Health’ revolution, making personal health management accessible to all at the click of a button, or a tap of the screen. In a world where accessibility and affordability pose two of the greatest challenges to universal healthcare, digital solutions, although certainly not being able to replace the role of the healthcare professional, present a range relatively inexpensive opportunities: helping patients adhere to and manage their treatments and support in the diagnostics are some examples.
Numerous digital technologies exist to illustrate these benefits. Smartphone apps have been created to help manage a wide spectrum of health conditions such as Asthma, Crohn’s Disease, Diabetes, heart disease and depression, to name a few. Artificial intelligence algorithms are being developed to detect conditions from early-stage skin cancers to diabetic retinopathy. Meanwhile, online patient support groups and virtual services are gaining momentum and pharmaceutical companies are entering into direct dialogue with consumers more often, across more channels, as brand (product and corporate) communication becomes more important in a digital age where corporates have less influence on conversations on the issues they care about.
From a consumer perspective, there seems to be an appetite for more involvement in decisions about health. As we found in our recent Global Trends Survey, globally, over three quarters (77%) say they would like more control over decisions about their own health.
When it comes to reasons for using a connected health device or tool to manage their health, over half (53%) say that they do it to monitor or improve their exercise level, two in five (43%) do it because they are interested in their own health data and a third (33%) say they do it because they want to lose weight.
Despite the benefits seen by those who use these devices and tools, adoption of a connected health device or tool is still relatively small. Only one in ten (12%) say the use one to manage their health, and three quarters (74%) say they have never used one. Key reasons for not doing so are perceived costs (27%), lack of knowledge – “I don’t know enough about them” (27%) or “I don’t see it as useful” (20%) among others.
Data security and privacy are part of the debate too. 43% say they are comfortable providing information about themselves to companies in return for personalised services and products. Consumers are less keen, however, if they are not in control of what data companies are receiving – only a third (33%) are happy for companies to use information about them, such as location or browsing history, that is provided automatically when they go online.
This is coupled with a current lack of regulatory frameworks to guide digital ‘best practice’ and misconceptions surrounding data classification and protection laws. On a broader scale, the digital health debate is marred by concerns over the loss of the ‘human interface’ provided by the doctor-patient dynamic; untrained people making decisions on health, and the potential impact this may have on the healthcare profession.
From a business strategy perspective, the challenge is in finding the sweet spot between privacy, accessibility and usefulness. Future developments will come from new partnerships between pharma and technology companies, a larger and more diverse potential customer base and further overall progress and development of medical practices through reduced per patient costs, time efficiency and the fostering of knowledge sharing and skills training among healthcare professionals.
In this context, pharmaceutical and technology companies are part of a wide stakeholder ecosystem that includes governments, patients, healthcare professionals, payers, media, regulatory bodies and investors among others, each with their own interests and expectations. A key consideration is that although companies do not necessarily own the conversation around digital health, their bottom line results will be affected by it.
Therefore, a robust reputation management strategy with each of the stakeholder groups is crucial for any company involved in “digital health” to futureproof their businesses, minimise risks (particularly in the context of data privacy and cybercrime – much like the virus that hit the NHS IT systems recently) and make the most of the opportunities available to them.
Our view on an effective strategy is rooted in four core principles:
- Clarity on the stakeholder universe that will have a say on “digital health”. Companies need to identify who the key players are in their space, and how their actions affect business strategy.
- Acknowledgement of the opportunities and challenges for each of them. What are stakeholder priorities and concerns? What are the issues that they care about most that have potential to impact your business or licence to operate?
- Definition of the company’s overarching approach to “connected health”, and how this fits in with existing approaches to pharmacovigilance and compliance
- Tailored messaging to each individual group.
The pursuit of stakeholder input is a core part of any communications and business strategy, particularly in the case of developing disciplines such as “digital health”. Within this context, constructive dialogue can be leveraged to set the tone for any future working relationship. If applied correctly and from the beginning, this approach can predict whether different interest groups will act as ‘road blocks’ or offer an indication of the scope that exists for creating a successful long-term business plan.