The words “chaos” and “opportunity” are the same in Chinese according to Michael Reilly of Triantan Solutions, one of the expert speakers at the recent PharmaTimes’ Round Table event on Digital on 28th June.

Come 2020, when brand new Chinese-made smart phones are being given out for $10 to many millions in Africa, we in ‘The West” might look back and wish we had taken a bit more notice in 2011.

Michael was one of the two speakers at our lunch session and it wasn’t short on disruptive thinking; digital and otherwise. Indeed, Michael hinted strongly that it was essential to the survival of pharma. As a female pharma friend on Facebook posted recently, “well-behaved women rarely make history”, so it’s not just Michael in “act now, regulate later” mode.

But before Michael showed us his thinking on mHealth, John Pugh, the Global Head of Digital at Boehringer Ingelheim gave us a fascinating session on Future Forces in Digital. It seems that he and his BI colleagues took themselves off to distant shores for a weekend with some of the smartest thinkers they could find, to plot out what was on the digital horizon. They went to Iceland for some peace and quite and presumably to dispel any suggestion that it was a jolly in the sunshine.

The thinksters included “I invented SMS ages ago and BT told me to go away” futurologist Ian Pearson; “Dose of Digital” blogger John Richmond and at least one teenage millionaire entrepreneur. John alone wore a fancy dress space suit for the photo shoot for reasons that weren’t entirely obvious. Perhaps he had lost a bet? He’s extremely smart, so it seems unlikely.

Anyway, together they came up with a number of Future Forces in Digital so that their strategy in pharma would be better informed. Given his recent promotion and what John was able to show us of his subsequent work, it was a worthwhile trip.

The “Forces” included, the democratisation of information; the rise of social power; privacy as a tradable commodity; the importance of gaming, DNA forecasting, 24-hour health monitoring and the need for bite-sized information, among others.

Some of this was inspired insight, some of it came as little surprise to the assembled digital gurus (most vocal of which was my colleague Ifty Ahmed) and a little of it was with tongue firmly in cheek. Let’s just say you won’t be seeing the people behind Operations@Home on Dragon’s Den any time soon.

John’s impressive “non-bullet pointed” presentation (he used by the way) was quite deliberately interrupted with questions from some of the 30 or so digital pharma marketing folks tucking into the very good lunch at Meza in Soho, compliments of event sponsor EPG Media.

These “interruptions” produced a few conceptual nuggets, at least one of which came from my table-mate Craig Mills from Fontera, who made the enticing link between 1) success in online health games (such as BI’s Pharmorama to rival Farmville on Facebook or Hive’s patient tamagotchi); 2) the points one can earn there for demonstrating common health sense, and 3) trading those points for reduced health insurance premiums. NICE (pun intended).

However, while both very good presentations got us all thinking about digital in a bit more focus, it wasn’t really the digital debate that got my own thinking fired up. Rather, it was the seeming comparative lack of investment in preventative medicine and healthcare.

According to Michael, over 90% of healthcare spend in the US, happens in the last 30 days of life.

That got me thinking that close to 100% of global healthcare spend must surely happen after a diagnosis is made. Namely, after a “person” becomes a “patient”.

Does this not strike you as odd? It did me.

When working on website design and development projects, I warn clients at the outset that they may make changes during the planning stages for £1 per change; that it goes up to £10 after we’ve started design and build, and up to £100 per change, after we have finished it.

Any financial adviser will tell you that the earlier you start saving for retirement the easier it will be in the long run. Look at how many of us are now racing to catch up with friends who started investing £5 per month when they were 18. The same forward-thinking people have also paid off their mortgages by the way.

The lesson here is that addressing an issue earlier rather than later (however lightly) can save a lot of money and heartache. In healthcare it can of course save lives.

Tracey Brader from DDB Healthcare pointed out to me that studies had been done that suggested that as few as 30% of patients who are prescribed medication, comply wholly with the dosage instructions. Apparently, a worrying percentage don’t’ even pick up their prescription from the pharmacist, and a good proportion of those who do, never take it.

So what would a Martian visitor make of the current state of affairs? One in which the vast majority of money is spent and made solving health problems rather than preventing them.

According to John Pugh, people aren’t interested in spending money on preventative medicine. That may be the case, and perhaps they shouldn’t be picking up the bill anyway. But, Felix Jackson from medCrowd pointed out the huge global markets for personal fitness, alternative medicine and nutrition, all of which are focused on the prevention of poor health. There would seem to be a perception issue here. If it’s “medical” I’m less interested  because I’m not in control. However, if it’s about nutrition, fitness or it’s  “herbal” … I’m game.

“I don’t need an appointment with my GP to improve my diet or join a gym, but I do if I want to find out what disease I’m most at risk of contracting and learn what I can do to prevent it.

So, is it just me, or are we missing something big here. What about all of those people at imminent and high risk of developing a disease? Shouldn’t at least 10% of the available resources be spent helping people easily identify where they are most at risk and giving them ideas and incentives for reducing that risk? Perhaps this is possible already and I’ve missed it. (If so, please send me the link.)

And what role should pharma play? Should their efforts to make their products obsolete be rewarded? What can they do to help when it flies in the face of their commercial model?

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to create a health profile (Eg: 20 lifestyle questions) and have that profile compared to those of other similar people? An online service where I can get a quick sense of where my major health risks are and what I needn’t worry so much about?

I’ve played around with amateur websites that predict the date of your death and this is really just an extension of that.

If not, we could call it (It’s available!)

Then, when we read the blurb, watch the videos, play the games and prove that we “get it” and have changed our lifestyle to reduce the risk of getting those high-risk diseases, we can be rewarded with points to spend on things that will make us even healthcare and/or happier.

Disruptive Healthcare anyone?

Mark Walmsley
Strategy Director
Vivid Lime