Today, digital health contests like Bayer's. Tomorrow? Pharma needs digital disruption

Bayer's Berlin headquarters

Digital health may be popular in the rest of the healthcare industry, but it's still the red-headed stepchild of pharma marketing. As MobiHealthNews reports, providers and payers "have dived into the digital health world with gusto," but pharma's moves haven't been so enthusiastic.

Is a new initiative from Bayer any different? As PMLiVE reports, as part of the company's Grants4Apps program, Bayer will offer €50,000 and office space at its Berlin headquarters to each of 5 winning digital health startups from Europe, South Africa, Israel or Canada. The startups have to be focused on cardiology, oncology or women's health. Meanwhile, it's launching a smaller contest to pluck three German startups in men's health, and another focused on business intelligence.

As PMLive notes, Bayer is not the first pharma company to sponsor a competition for digital health innovation. Last year, Janssen crowned a cancer support mobile app the winner of its first-ever Digital Health Masterclass Challenge, while Novartis ($NVS) had participants square off in mobile health for heart failure caregivers.

Patients don't generally trust pharma companies as much as physicians or insurers, Mobi points out, making bringing pharma-backed digital healthcare into patients' homes "an uphill battle." Still, contests like Bayer's only scratch the surface of digital marketing strategies pharma could actually use.

Forbes contributor David Shaywitz, for one, calls projects like Bayer's "frilly, high-profile demonstration projects that rich companies pursue as a sort of vanity exercise." Those initiatives are interesting enough, he wrote, but not "prosecuted with real urgency, as if the company's future actually depended on it."

But Shaywitz figures a shift is coming. Take one area where companies are feeling a sense of urgency: payer pushback, brought into the spotlight by Gilead's ($GILD) expensive Sovaldi and its forthcoming, ultra-pricey hepatitis C rivals. Payers are taking unprecedented action--like forming a coalition to exclude the drug, as pharmacy benefits manager Express Scripts ($ESRX) says it intends to do unless new competitors force prices down. It's a move that threatens pharma's business at its core.

Therein lies the marketing opportunity, Shaywitz says. Digital health technologies could help pharma companies build their "value story" for new products. Smaller companies might even develop ways to add an advanced digital health companion to a cheap drug. That, he says, could make the case for a higher price.

It would also put larger drugmakers on notice. "When big pharmas find themselves losing anticipated blockbusters due to this sort of disruptive approach, you can bet they will embrace digital health as a competitive necessity, rather than as an amusing distraction," he wrote.

- get more from PMLiVE
- see the story from Forbes
- read MobiHealthNews' take

Special Report: 20 Big Pharma and biotech mobile apps - 2013