Should pharma be in the app business?

Consumers downloaded 204 billion apps in 2019, and mobile use has been increasing during the pandemic. Apple, with its new privacy requirements, is challenging app developers and brands while Facebook cries fowl. It will have little effect on app use, though, for consumers.

In 2020, there should be over 592 million daily app downloads, and a survey by Gallup revealed that nearly half (45%) of Americans have at least tried digital health products such as fitness trackers or mobile health apps. .Indeed, 1 in 5 (20%) have tried or are using both fitness trackers and apps

81 percent of American adults have a smartphone, according to Pew Research but we must remember there is a huge difference between “health (wellness) apps and apps that focus on specific health conditions”.

 The global mHealth app market is growing fast and expected to reach $111 billion by 2025. Fitness accounts for the largest share of the US mHealth app market, which is expected to grow to $50 billion by 2025. So should pharma be in the app business?

First there is the cost of developing an app. The average cost to make an app ranges from $80K – $250K+, depending on what type of app you want to create: Simple apps cost up to $80,000. Basic database apps cost between $100,000 – $150,000. Advanced, multi-feature apps cost $150,000 – $250,000.

Then some upgrades may be needed for new information as well as integration with new operating systems. But the real question that needs to be answered is, “will an app support brand objectives?”.

An app can help patients manage their chronic conditions but there are a lot of variables. If, for existence, a pharma developed app requires patients to “check-in” everyday it could be a reminder that they are living with a chronic health issue.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome is privacy issues. Should pharma, for example, collect data on users and how much should they collect and for what purpose? Aggregate data on how people are using the app and what they are doing could be beneficial as long as it’s not personally identifiable.

What’s really needed are peer-reviewed studies showing that apps both benefit patient outcomes while driving pharma company objectives. For example, an app to help patients track MS symptoms may help patients but will it increase compliance?

The hype around mHealth is in overdrive but the vast majority of the health apps that are downloaded have to do will exercise and wellness.

HIMSS reports the most popular type of mHealth health apps today include:

  • Exercise and fitness trackers.
  • Diet and calorie counters.
  • Weight monitors.
  • Healthy eating.
  • Menstrual cycle trackers.
  • Blood pressure tools.
  • Blood sugar or diabetes tools.
  • Medication management.
  • Mood trackers.
  • Sleep monitoring.

But at the same time, 93% of doctors believe mHealth apps can improve patients’ health. Physicians are incorporating digital therapies into their patient encounters in increasing numbers. 56% of doctors have initiated the use of these tools and 26% of patients have asked about these tools.

PWC polled consumers to ask them if they would be willing to use an FDA app or online tool to treat their medical condition. The survey found:

  • 21% would be very likely.
  • 33% would be somewhat likely.

The key to successful app development and usage is not downloads but usage. To this extent, any pharma-developed apps would need to be tested for usability which adds to cost. App development is also not just one and done. Updates and new features need to be added as you learn more about what users want and need. This is new to pharma.

Apps can help patients manage chronic health issues, but for pharma to really get involved would require a change in thinking from “what’s in it for us?” to “if it helps patient, it’s what we want to do.”