AstraZeneca at Cannes: Healthcare delivery's speeding away from pharma's marketing model

Cannes Lions Health outdoor shot
AstraZeneca and Babylon Health presented an AI app that goes far beyond the pill in a talk at Cannes Lions Health.

Can smartphones upend commerce in biopharma? AstraZeneca thinks they might—or might help, at least. That’s why the U.K.-based drug giant teamed up with Babylon Health in a pilot project that’s more healthcare than pharma.

John McCarthy, AZ’s global digital VP, last week went behind the scenes of that partnership to show how healthcare might shift under pharma’s feet. In a presentation at Cannes Lions Health, McCarthy and Babylon CEO Ari Parsa demonstrated Babylon’s artificial intelligence health app, a sort of virtual triage nurse combined with personal health tracker and telemedicine provider.

McCarthy said pharma’s fundamental marketing approach—sending sales reps to visit doctors—hasn’t changed much since he got into the business 30 years ago, and new technologies, including telemedicine, are likely to complicate that channel.

“The way healthcare is delivered will run away from our commercial model,” McCarthy said.

How, for example, are drugmakers going to handle telemedicine? “A guy behind a screen is harder to reach,” McCarthy pointed out.

Taking it further, how will drugmakers deal with artificial intelligence that sifts massive amounts of data—from patient records and clinical trials and myriad other sources—to make treatment recommendations?

Babylon’s app can tap all sorts of wearables and connected devices to collect data, from fitness bands to glucose monitors. Among those devices could be smart inhalers that track respiratory drug dosing—the sort of inhaler AstraZeneca is using in a clinical trial designed to test mobile med reminders in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

The pilot project will collect scads of data on the app's users. Babylon can use that data to improve its AI and NHS can analyze it for its own insights. AZ will have access to “summary data” from the project.

Long term, the applications for smartphone healthcare delivery and health tracking could include monitoring side effects of cancer therapies to help doctors intervene with dose changes, symptom remedies and the like. Or similarly, tracking asthma patients between injections, McCarthy said.

One other aim for the drugmaker is simpler: To test how the NHS, as a payer, views pharma in general—and AstraZeneca in particular—as a partner in providing patient care. The Babylon project is far, far beyond the pill, after all.

“We have to find a way to play along” as healthcare changes, McCarthy said. “How do payers feel about pharma in a partnership like this?”

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