It is reliably learned that Biocon bypassed Wellthy, which is found to be a rather inferior copy of Welldoc, a US FDA-approved digital therapy company. Moreover, Wellthy is into lifestyle management.
Geographical Diversity in India
Whereas the digital tool that Biocon plans to launch will take into consideration geographic diversity in India and focus on lifestyle management. For instance, Gujaratis have heavy dinner and South Indians have three meals of rice. In India, people in each region have varying calorie and sugar intake and the app will factor this diversity into the diet plan.
Subramanian wouldn’t comment on Wellthy, but he wants to be very careful with lifestyle management information as there is diverse information, and if doctors—the only point of trust for patients—rubbish the app, Biocon will fail in its efforts. Too many sources of health information can also be a problem; doctors are wary of information overload.
But Dr. V Mohan, founder of the diabetes specialist hospital and clinic chain Dr. Mohan’s, thinks it’s a good idea. Mohan, who operates 48 clinics in 10 Indian states, is underwhelmed by the older digital health tools.
“Diabetes is a lifelong disorder and we need face-to-face interaction to sustainably manage it,” he says. Digital reminders support that aim as the reminders sent through mobile applications have resulted in repeat appointments, he adds. The doctor has observed that if diabetic patients visit the clinic three-four times a year, it reduces kidney complications to a large extent. “It is repeated visits for diagnosis, clinical examination like an eye, foot and abdominal examination requiring to see and touch that helped patients,” he claims.
Sharing Information with the Patients
The doctor sees value in using a mobile application to share information with patients, acting as a health coach, motivating them and reminding them to eat well and exercise. Dr. Mohan’s employs diabetes educators to play this role—they make calls and counsel at the clinics—and it plans to shift some of this to digital, without underplaying consultation with the doctor.
Meanwhile, digital therapy platforms are beefing up.
Shah of Wellthy plans to build a research base that showcases what digital therapy can assure and to what extent. Wellthy’s first set of published clinical studies were based on a pilot with 102 diabetic patients who recorded lower blood sugar levels over 16 weeks. It has conducted another such study with 800 patients that would be published over the next few months. Once Cipla goes live with Wellthy over the next quarter, says Shah, together they will be able to validate their research with tens of thousands of patients across two therapeutic areas—cardiology and diabetes. Quality research should also mean better business. But will Indian pharma be convinced of its ability to improve sales?
It is difficult to establish a direct correlation between digital marketing tools and sales, says KG Ananthakrishnan, former vice-president and managing director, MSD India, a subsidiary of US-based pharma major Merck. Ananthakrishnan, who has spent four decades in the Pharma sector and worked with Pharma companies Pfizer and Novartis in the past, now advises consulting companies and health startups.
When Ananthakrishnan was with MSD, it had launched a diabetes patient engagement program in 2008 called Sparsh in India. It was aimed at counseling patients to monitor blood sugar levels, improve compliance with the drug regimen and encourage them to see their physicians regularly and guide them on diet and exercise.
It became a telecom-plus-digital program when MSD later collaborated with HCL, wherein patients on MSD’s drug therapy would receive calls as well as messages on their phones. The program is ongoing and relies more on digital tools now.
Ananthakrishnan recognizes that such programs using digital tools like mobile applications can help increase awareness of the disease, improve compliance and manage chronic diseases better.
“Digital marketing must be part of the strategic marketing mix of a product,” he says. He feels that the patients are becoming aware of the tactical approach by pharmaceuticals, and thus, sales tools will have a short life. If the problem is solved in a holistic manner via a third party, it is seen as strategic.
Instead of becoming a pusher of pills, if pharma takes a supportive approach, it will earn goodwill in a country that is grappling with lifestyle diseases.