Two years since the launch of Apple's iPad, the use of tablets and smartphones by business is growing at nearly 12 per cent a year, while the traditional PC business is shrinking two per cent, according to the UK's National Computing Centre.
The ease of use of the devices, with features such as rapid start-up, lightweight form factor and tactile interface, seem to be driving uptake, with four out of 10 UK firms across all industries already using tablets.
Many businesses seem to be opting for iPads, thanks to the availability of apps and a number of tweaks in 2011 to increase their usefulness for business applications, such as presentations and videoconferencing, although in terms of UK market share, Apple's iOS operating system actually ranks third after Google's Android and Reality in Motion's Blackberry.
The pharmaceutical industry is not generally considered an early adopter of new technologies, but there are signs that it, too, is embracing the mobile revolution, driven in part by the burgeoning rise of smartphone and tablet use among healthcare practitioners.
Recent data from ABI Research suggests that the market for mobile health apps – albeit dominated largely by sports, fitness and wellness products – will almost quadruple from $120m in 2010 to $400m by 2016. Meanwhile, almost 80 per cent of US doctors are already using smartphones and tablets for a wide array of medical technical and administrative tasks, according to healthcare recruitment firm Jackson & Coker.
Some pharma companies are already reacting to this changing environment, and the sales and marketing function seems to be driving the march towards mobile.
For example, Daiichi Sankyo recently revamped its UK corporate structure and culture and at the core of all that process is a new emphasis on the harnessing of mobile technologies, said Simon Clough, managing director of the drugmaker's UK operations, at Eyeforpharma's recent Mobile Pharma Strategy conference in London, UK.
The underlying aim is to reinvent relationships with customers, shifting away from a 'transactional', product-orientated selling role to one of partnerships and key account management (KAM) founded on an exploration of the underlying value of products to patients and healthcare systems.
"It's a question of changing systems, processes and patient outcomes for the better [and] getting better results from any resources that are being consumed," Clough said.
One element of this has been the creation of a smaller field salesforce that is highly targeted towards the needs of the local healthcare environment, and an accompanying investment in mobile technology to facilitate that process by speeding up communications internally and with customers and making working processes more efficient.
Daiichi Sankyo took an early decision to invest in iPhones and iPads for every single one of its UK employees to provide technological tools to help its restructuring and, while the process is still in its early stages, Clough said the iPad "has already become embedded in the way we work".
For example, the company has introduced a new customer-relations manager (CRM) platform for its salesforce that was specifically designed for the iPad, which automates many processes that were formerly manual.
"Our iPads have now become our mobile business hubs," he added, noting that they are used not only for email and videoconferencing, but also as repositories for information, policies and in-house product apps to engage customers.
Even dry information, such as standard operating procedures (SOPs), has been brought to life by the use of the mobile platform, with employees interacting with them in a more meaningful way. Meanwhile, Daiichi Sankyo recently launched its own iPad-optimised internal 'discovery channel' to encourage staff to upload videos, interviews and other materials and has also started its own internal social media platform – Chatter – to get workers to interact with each other at a much higher level.
"Our teams are now working together and collaborating in ways they have never done before," said Clough.
While Daiichi Sankyo may be embracing the mobile revolution, other companies in the industry are not moving ahead so quickly. A survey of pharma companies carried out by Creation Healthcare in September-October 2011 found that over 70 per cent of respondents believed that the mobile Internet offered great potential opportunities for pharmaceutical companies, and a further 24 per cent believed it had some potential.
However, only half of the respondents were already using the mobile Internet in a health or healthcare environment, and 70 per cent of respondents indicated that regulatory compliance was a significant or moderate challenge to their use of mobile solutions, according to Daniel Ghinn, Creation's CEO and director of digital engagement.
"We are in an era when the pharmaceutical industry has an optimistic view of the potential value of mobile, but has yet to step out boldly into this medium," he said.
One emerging issue is the fact that regulatory authorities consider some apps to be medical devices, for example those that are intended for use alongside a medical device or treatment. In some cases, this is cut-and-dried. For instance, SHL Telemedicines's SmartHeart app operates as a self-service ECG and allows patients to send readings to their physicians. Few would disagree that this type of app needs some form of regulation.
For many apps, the situation is not so clear, particularly on the interface between wellness and health apps and, anecdotally, it appears that a number of pharma-developed apps have been withdrawn due to that regulatory uncertainty. The US Food and Drug Administration proposed draft guidance on this issue in August 2011.
The next big thing(s)?
With mobiles becoming firmly established in consumers' minds, companies are becoming increasingly creative in the way they interact with them and pharma is also following this trend.
A buzzword at the moment is location-based services (LBS), tipped by Juniper Research to become a $12.7bn market in its own right by 2014. Put simply, these allow brand owners to use the on-board GPS capabilities of many mobile devices to link customers to local services.
To give pharma examples: in Germany, Abbott has launched a diabetes app which uses LBS to identify a patient's nearest diabetologists, podiatrists, self-help groups and so on, while Pfizer has an app in Israel which locates nearby public toilets targeted at people with incontinence. The latter is also integrated into social media, allowing users to rate the facilities.
Creation's survey found that 16 per cent of respondents were already using LBS features, with nearly half saying they intended to make use of it in the coming 12 months.
Meanwhile, another hot trend is augmented reality, which couples the use of the mobile device's built-in camera with additional superimposed information. This is already starting to appear, albeit rarely at the moment, in some pharma-related apps. For instance, companies have started to experiment with information aids which overlay a representation of an organ system, such as the heart or gastrointestinal tract, over the torso of an individual, allowing them to look at a representation of a disease process and/or drug's mechanism of action.
So, to engage with doctors, pharma companies need to develop some brilliant apps to explain the merits of their products? Well, almost certainly not, according to Sam Walmsley of consultancy firm BlueLight Partners.
While 30 per cent of healthcare professionals use a smartphone to run apps, a third of these are only used once and (like everyone else) doctors are still using only five per cent of them a month after download.
Pharma is not really getting the multichannel experience right at the moment, Walmsley believes. A basic, and all too common, error is failing to ensure that existing content – corporate and product websites, for example – are optimised for mobile browsing, leading to sluggish downloads, poor search optimisation and clunky presentation on a mobile device.
"We're so focused on developing apps that we've missed a fundamental step in engaging our audience, which is to make sure our current websites are accessible to everybody who is looking for them."
Search capability on mobile devices is growing rapidly, accounting for an additional 20 per cent of traffic on top of traditional PC searching. That means optimising websites for mobile and making apps search-friendly, for example by having a dedicated app website, is a must, she said. Paid search also exists for mobile and, for the moment at least, is much cheaper and less competitive than the desktop or laptop alternative.
Pharma is at an exploratory phase with mobile at the moment and while some of the mobile apps being developed clearly have a 'wow' factor, it is likely that most will have limited longevity and end up being an expensive exercise in developing 'shiny objects' without any attempt to understand the underlying behavioural trends driving the mobile revolution, according to Duncan Arbour of Blue Latitude.
"This is tick-box marketing with a bit of magpie mentality," he said during a panel session at the Mobile Pharma Strategy meeting, pointing out that pharma made similar mistakes in its handling of social media.
One interesting strategy that needs to be explored more fully is helping doctors communicate with patients, rather than focusing on communicating with healthcare professionals. One good example of this is pharma-sponsored anatomical atlases which can be shown to the patient and annotated in order to explain a condition or treatment.
Usefulness and an understanding of patient needs are the keys. For example, Merck Sharpe & Dohme achieved 72,000 downloads in two weeks for an app which provided pollen count information to hayfever sufferers, providing great marketing for its over-the-counter Clarityn antihistamine brand – thanks in part to an editorial in the Daily Mail newspaper.
The last word to Clough: "Technology alone isn't enough – we need to keep trying to understand what can meaningfully make a difference to patient health."
Phil Taylor is a freelance journalist specialising in the pharmaceutical industry
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