If pharma marketers want to build better communication with physicians and patients, they need to understand how potential healthcare customers are interacting with the new mobile technology.

In an interview at this past September’s TechCrunch Disrupt Conference in San Francisco, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted, “The biggest mistake we made as a company was betting too much on HTML5 as opposed to native. It just wasn’t ready.” Some experts believe Facebook’s de-prioritization of their mobile apps is the primary cause of their mediocre stock performance. The speed of native mobile device code compared to that of the mobile web has sparked an explosion of apps and a culture of smartphone users (50% of Americans) that simply expect an app for everything (41 apps per phone average).

In healthcare, the “App Revolution” is happening on two fronts. On one side, the consumer-driven quantifiable-self movement has armed patients and caregivers with unprecedented levels of data about their biology and behaviors. Most people aren’t strangers to at least some form of physical activity tracking (Fitbit, Runkeeper, Nike+, etc.), but how about our genetic data? The 23andMe app notifies you when there is new information about your genetic code. After sending in your saliva sample via a home testing kit, they analyze your disease risk, carrier status, traits and drug response (not to mention your genetic ancestry). Then if new information comes out concerning your genetic profile, the app notifies you.

On the enterprise side, the mobilization of traditionally inaccessible, unusable, clunky systems like electronic medical records (EMRs) is turning real-time healthcare professional-decision making and remote monitoring into a reality. Kaiser Permanente recently built an Android app for their electronic health records (EHR) system (the largest in the world), putting management of healthcare for patients and physicians in the palm of their hands. And it’s not just handhelds—according to a recent survey by QuantiaMD, more than 30% of U.S. physicians now use tablets (some surveys have that number much higher), and of those, 20% are already using the devices in clinical settings. This new window into patient/ physician dialogue is sparking all sorts of new business models.

Companies like DrawMD and Jiff are hoping to capitalize on the dialogue itself— facilitating better conversation by allowing the physician to visually draw the biology of the ailment—while companies like Happtique want to become a pharmacy for apps, helping providers, physicians, and patients sift through the 17,000 health-related apps on the market, and find those that are truly valuable for a particular context. But the real trick when it comes to contemporary customer relationship management (CRM) is what a brand does after that moment. It’s one thing to have a new window into the patient/physician dialogue, but how do marketers take full advantage of it as it pertains to building better relationships with their customers?


The reality is that mobile apps are probably the best thing to ever happen to CRM. They offer a 24/7 view of your customer— including geography, digital behavior, and in some cases and conditions, actual biometrics. Whether it’s physically tethering two devices together, like Glooko, which allows you to attach almost any glucose meter to your iPhone, or much more subtle behavioral tracking like Ginger.io, which recently won the Sanofi-aventis $100,000 Data Design Diabetes challenge to develop a scalable, data-driven product that can benefit anyone in the diabetes ecosystem. It uses an algorithm developed in an MIT lab to track potentially dangerous mental health issues without user input. Healthrageous, a company focused on mobily enabled lifestyle modification programs recently announced a partnership with Boehringer Ingelheim to collaborate on a diabetes self management program, which includes “a personalized action plan with health behavior improvement goals, biometric feedback to demonstrate goal achievement and milestones, digital coach interaction, recognition and incentives for progress, supply and strip refill ordering, capturing HEDIS measures, medication reminders, and social networking support.” If that’s not CRM, nothing is. The fact that it may indeed lead to actual better outcomes is just gravy.


After you supply your saliva sample via a home testing kit, the 23andMe app analyzes your disease risk, carrier status, traits and drug response (not to mention your genetic ancestry). If new information comes out concerning your genetic profile, the app notifies you.

So marketers need to be asking themselves three questions:

1. Are we taking advantage of the new tablet-enabled window into the patient/ physician dialogue, i.e., creating something of value that would allow us to ask the patient permission to communicate with them once they leave the physician’s office? Better yet, are we providing a service that extends out of the office and fits well into their daily life?

2. Are we effectively using the deluge of available health data to create meaningful mobile-first communication strategies? If not an app, how about a location-triggered text, or a series of helpful tips? Novartis’s Get on Track program is a great example of a company using discreet mobile nudges to help a patient better manage their blood pressure (full disclosure, I work for the company that helped design the program).

3. Now that I’m in the software business, whom can I get to help me? Finding the right partner to help navigate both the subtleties of software development and the intricacies of the healthcare regulatory environment will be critical. And don’t jump directly to a “Build an app” scenario. Depending on your category, there are most likely plenty of start-ups or established third parties that have customers and objectives that align with your own. Explore new partnerships.

While the usage and creation of apps for health information, monitoring and treatment is growing at lightning speed, it is important to develop a thoughtful strategy that is relevant to the consumers and providers with whom you are seeking to engage. By developing a strategy driven by the behavior, knowledge or attitudes you are looking to impact, and understanding how your target audience is using devices, you may optimize your impact. Further, it will be important to develop approaches that help users along the chain of devices, from those least active and tech-savvy to those early adopters who are actively seeking apps to help them manage their healthcare.


  • Brendan Gallagher

    Brendan Gallagher is EVP, Connected Health Innovations at Digitas Health LifeBrands, leading this new capability that combines the agency’s mobile strategy, social content marketing and community management, technology and partnership offerings.


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