Why have commercial life sciences, with a track record of going it alone, pivoted to partnerships with the Digital Health Ecosystem? How might a life science marketer get their organization primed for more/better partnering? How is the success of a partnership measured? What are some of the key watchouts in partnering?

These questions and more were at the heart of a lively and informative panel discussion earlier this month at the second annual “Digital Health for Pharma” forum.  I was fortunate to have the opportunity to moderate this panel comprised of respected speakers from life sciences and the digital health arena, featuring:

John Baylor, Innovation & Strategy, Astellas Pharma US

Stephen Ranjan, Vice President, New Product Development, Roche Diabetes Care, Inc.

Lauren Li, Global Head of Digital Health, Ipsen

Christopher Lento, Head of Healthcare Partnerships, Noom, Inc.

Digital Health’s Time Is Now

The panel widely agreed that COVID-19 has been a major accelerator in digital health investments and partnerships, doing in months what would have otherwise taken years. According to Rock Health1, digital health deal volume just through the end of Q3 2020 was up 22% over the whole of 2019.

Life sciences companies have been experiencing a progressive decline in the effectiveness of the traditional promotional model. COVID-19 has accelerated that decline, cutting off in-person rep access to healthcare professionals as one notable point of impact. Many organizations are now pioneering efforts to develop and test new commercial models. And that’s where digital health has the potential play a major role.

Organizational Readiness

Digital health partnerships require the right organizational conditions to succeed. Stephen Ranjan of Roche Diabetes Care supports an open innovation framework which leverages crowdsourcing to help solve business challenges. That model engenders an environment that’s very conducive to collaborations and partnerships. In organizations that are not quite that supportive, Lauren Li of Ispen espouses her pragmatic and memorable “5 P framework” for a successful digital health partnership.  The five elements of Li’s framework are:

  1. People: internal stakeholders who provide support or are supported; “getting different levels of support is really critical”
  2. Process: the path for getting things done, such as ensuring that each member of the team “fully understand the value for their individual mandates or roles.”
  3. Proof: the means by which to demonstrate results, such as “the right clinical validation, the regulatory clearances”
  4. Problem: “there needs to be a meaningful clearly defined problem that pharma can get senior support and budget behind. And on the digital health side, it’s a problem that their technology can uniquely help solve.”
  5. Patient-physician centricity: “the ultimate users to customers for such a solution, really thinking from the beginning of solution design, we expect the digital health company to have taken into consideration human-centered design, the insights of the wholistic life journey of the patient, not just the disease and the drug journey, but all the aspects of their life”

Measuring Success

As with any other life science commercial initiatives, a digital health initiative realized through partnership needs to have a very clear objective at the onset. The panel explained that clear objectives ensure that the partnership is held to an accepted standard for proving results. It’s essential that the owner of the initiative achieve internal alignment of critical success factors before determining the partner and launching the program (or pilot). John Baylor said about defining success “To define the actual KPIs is very situationally specific. Are we looking to identify more patients for a specific disease state? Are we looking to increase patient adherence are we looking to increase fill rates? Whatever it may be, those things are defined project by project, but just having that working relationship is super important; because it’s not like you just turn on the switch and [the situation] is good…you’re updating it, making revisions, adjusting as needed, which is super important as well.”

Bumps in The Road

Partnering in digital health is not without risks, and the panel highlighted some notable watchouts. The panelists indicated that the most prominent risk in this space is centered around the need to ensure compliance of any partner selected. That means choosing a partner with a keen understanding of anti-kickback statutes (AKS) and other regulatory and legislative requirements, or, if they have limited experience partnering with life science companies then they need to be exceptionally responsive to those requirements. That can be a heavy and time-consuming lift for small start-ups, the panel noted, so it is important to assess partners methodically.

In the end, if a life sciences company finds the right partner for the right opportunity, then all necessary diligence will be worthwhile. Successful partnerships create a situation where real-world outcomes can be realized, yielding results that would be difficult (if not impossible) to achieve by a life science company alone. This symbiosis is the promise and reality of partnering in digital health.

1 https://rockhealth.com/reports/q3-2020-digital-health-funding-already-sets-a-new-annual-record/