Brent I. Fox, Pharm.D., Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Health Outcomes Research and Policy, Harrison School of Pharmacy, Auburn University
Brent I. Fox, Pharm.D., Ph.D.

I must confess: I like shiny things. I especially like shiny things that run on 1’s and 0’s, can exchange large volumes of data (information) in near real time, and can connect me with people on a global scale. When these things can present this information in amazing color and clarity with crystal-clear audio, I am just beside myself. With this insight, it is likely not surprising that I really enjoy following technology hype cycles. Admittedly, I do find myself sometimes rooting for the latest tech’s success — so I can fully incorporate it into my daily life.

What digital health innovations are you watching? Comment below and let us know…

ComputerTalk readers have certainly seen information technology (IT) successes and failures in the more than 20 years this column has existed (more on that next month). Theranos is a recent failure that showed so much promise — on the surface. In brief, Theranos, Inc., claimed it was going to revolutionize medical laboratory testing by making blood tests cheaper, faster, and more accessible with a finger prick.

At the time of this writing, the outcome of the U.S. Department of Justice’s criminal fraud trial of Theranos’s founder is unknown. Theranos is relevant because it was positioned to be a player in the push to move monitoring and patient care to a more patient-centered model through affordable testing in the community setting.

Regardless of the outcome of the Theranos trial, the broad umbrella under which their technology fit —digital health — is still experiencing remarkable enthusiasm and growth. Telehealth is one digital health technology undergoing an accelerated rate of adoption, largely due to the pandemic. There are others worth following, however. Below, a variety of initiatives are presented for readers to explore. Inclusion in this column does not convey endorsement.

A Look Around Emerging Digital Health Technology

Treatment-resistant depression is a type of major depressive disorder (MDD) that responds poorly to standard medication therapy. Nearly one-third of adult patients with MDD experience treatment-resistant depression (TRD), accounting for 47% of the annual spend for MDD. This disproportionate share of costs highlights the potential impact of effectively managing TRD.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBD) is a form of talk therapy that aims to help individuals with depression become aware of and constructively respond to negative thinking. Janssen Pharmaceuticals (a Johnson&Johnson company) partnered with Koa Health to research CBT delivered through a digital health platform (in conjunction with other interventions). Depressive symptoms occur at any time throughout the day. Through a digital health platform, the goal is to support patients’ CBT talk therapy whenever and wherever it is needed.

Sticking with J&J, atrial fibrillation (AFib) affects more than 2 million American adults and increases an individual’s risk of stroke more the four times the average. For those over 80, a fib is the direct cause of 25% of strokes. Fortunately, AFib can be effectively treated, although the treatment requires close monitoring.

Early detection is an important component of managing a fib. In partnership with Apple, Johnson&Johnson launched the Heartline Study in 2020. This research initiative aims to enroll individuals 65 and older in a heart health study. The study includes AFib detection using the Apple Watch, with a goal of early detection to ideally prevent strokes before they happen. More information can be found at heartline.com.

Due to its COVID-19 vaccine, Pfizer has certainly received its share of press over the last year. The company has also been investing in digital health. Specifically, Pfizer announced a partnership with DoctorOnCall to address three therapeutic areas in Malaysia: vaccinations, smoking cessation, and heart health.

The initiative includes web-based “health centers” for each therapeutic area. In addition to common components of such initiatives (e.g., education, articles, etc.), the health centers include games and quizzes to engage visitors in active experiences. Ultimately, the goal is to empower individuals to engage in their own health management. Malaysia is obviously not just around the corner from your local pharmacy, but the lessons learned can provide insight into similar initiatives here in the U.S.

While the initiatives above are relatively recent developments in the digital health space, AbbVie recently announced a second extension of its partnership with Calico Life Sciences that originally began in 2014. This project focuses on developing therapies related to aging and cancer. Calico, founded by Alphabet (Google’s parent company), provides advanced computing and technology expertise.

AbbVie provides expertise in drug development and bringing products to market. It is not uncommon in the health IT space for initiatives with tremendous potential to go thud. The significance of the AbbVie-Calico partnership is its longevity. The partnership has been extended beyond 2025, with each company investing $500 million in the extended partnership.

The AbbVie-Calico collaboration illustrates that companies from two distinct industries can successfully work together. This is not always the case. To address the opportunities presented by digital health and simultaneously facilitate successful collaborations, the PharmStars digital health accelerator was created. PharmStars educates digital health and pharma companies on how they can work together.

The first cohort recently completed the 10-week program and included 12 digital health companies and six pharma companies, including AstraZeneca, Boehringer Ingelheim, Eli Lilly, and Novo Nordisk, among others. The digital health companies’ focus areas included AI (artificial intelligence) and predictive diagnosis, matching patients for clinical trial participation, ingestible drug delivery, remote patient monitoring, and a host of other specialty areas.

Not mentioned above, Takeda was an additional participant in PharmStars. The company is employing a multiprong strategy to grow digital health innovation. In addition to PharmStars, Takeda launched TakedaSpark in 2021. TakedaSpark is an incubation platform focused on developing products for disease screening and diagnosis, digital therapeutics, and data analytics.

As a third component of its strategy, Takeda launched and completed a Digital Health Innovation Challenge in 2021. The stated goal of the challenge was to develop new partnerships that would advance personalized care. The winning company (Swiss-based IDUN Technologies) focuses on sleep disorders.

Like the Energizer Bunny, the list of digital health initiatives within the pharma industry keeps going and going. The pharma industry has dedicated substantial resources to the digital health space. We know many efforts will not be successful. That is why it is called “innovation.” We can expect that those products that are brought to market will have great potential to impact our patients’ lives. As pharmacists, we must remain in the conversation to ensure medication-related aspects of digital health are fully considered and incorporated into patient care. CT

Brent I. Fox, Pharm.D., Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Health Outcomes Research and Policy, Harrison School of Pharmacy, Auburn University.
He can be reached at foxbren@auburn.edu.

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