At this time of year our industry loves nothing more than looking into the crystal ball and predicting what 2017 has in store.
But if we look at the success rates of trend predictions and polls recently, we'd be right to be nervous about betting money on what the future holds. As we saw during the US Presidential election (and the EU Referendum this year), they often get it wrong.
The 'hot right now' gang are focused on wearable health technology, capitalising on solutions for those who wear their FitBit, who share their running routes on Strava and have their Pocket Yoga for those moments of mindfulness when only an app will do. But have we really seen the change in behaviour that the trend reports over the past years have promised?
In short, no. By 2017 the number of wearable devices is going to peak at 170 million, providing us with thousands of pieces of data about ourselves and our health. But 2016 has shown that data is not enough to change behaviour. More so, do our clients have an interest in the health-conscious audience anyway? No surprises there - pharma has long been hesitant to invest in customer insights, behaviour mapping and user experience design - all hallmarks of smart digital innovation that put longevity and ultimate impact as a priority.
So rather than join the masses shouting loudly about predicted innovations in 2017, we took a look at those who are just quietly getting on and doing it. If you listen to the masses, you'll hear that 2017 will be another year of the same type of apps, for the same type of people. But listen carefully and there's an interesting countercurrent of conversation - noise about 'what should be hot right now'.
Instead of focusing on the high-tech solutions to health, we believe that those making the countercurrent noise have it right. We're talking about the lower-tech solutions, designed for those groups who sit outside the standard digital-native, higher-income users - those who arguably could do with better health support.
Are we neglecting the needs of those on the fringes of digital?
If the opportunity is seized by the health industry, 2017 could be the year of low-tech/high-tech; the year when the 'forgotten' users are supported for the first time. And, importantly, the year when customer insights will really lead to the most impactful solutions.
What could this look like? Let's look at non-communicable chronic diseases, which currently contribute 86% of the deaths and 77% of the disease burden across Europe - and so are obviously an area of significant focus for pharma as they continue to introduce innovative therapies. Currently, marketing efforts are aimed at convincing the doctor to prescribe, but little is done to elicit a patient behaviour change that will keep patients on therapy, track their progress and improve their wider health.
So, what can we do? Well, the groups most at risk from non-communicable diseases are those from lower socio-economic backgrounds or from ageing demographics. These groups are often on the fringes of digital thinking and have different needs and abilities from the digital-native, higher-income users when considering digital technology.
When it comes to best practice, not-for-profit organisations are really showing the pharma world what support can and should look like. Text4Baby in the US, for example, is a service that looks to replace what many pregnant women now use a range of apps for – it sends reminders and important information via text three times a week throughout the pregnancy, at birth and then throughout the first year of the baby's life.
Why is this smart? Because apps require a lot of data - so when you have a limited data plan, rarely have access to Wi-Fi and don't necessarily have app use ingrained into your psyche, text messaging is the next best thing.
What this and many other examples demonstrate is that it's not the technology itself that has an impact; it's how we use the technology to deliver a solution that is useful to our audience and has a true impact on their health.
So, when we look to predict trends, let's not fall into the trap of making promises that may not be delivered. Let's predict something that can be delivered - better design, better use of the right technology, and better experience and impact for the end user. Let's be smart and find out the behaviours and needs of those people we ultimately seek to help, those on the fringes of digital. Understand them and their needs, and we can and will get this right.
Sarah Brown is client services director and Luke Cripps is senior account manager at Frontera