Digital therapeutics from apps to smart inhalers, brought to you by pharma

While pharma-to-patient technologies have been around for several years, they’ve been largely experimental—and frankly, hit or miss.

But as patients continue to take a more active role in their healthcare and wellness, the industry's interest in technology assistance—sometimes actual virtual assistants like Apple's Siri or Amazon’s Alexa—is booming.

2018 was the year of emerging prescription apps, first-ever digital pills and connected smart medical devices. And pharma companies dove in, often with the help of tech partners. Otsuka’s Abilify MyCite, created with Proteus Digital Health, was the first digital pill and the first approved this year, connecting with patients' smartphone apps and spurred along by a marketing deal with Magellan Health.

Novartis is another pharma on the digital therapeutics wagon, partnering with Pear Therapeutics for its substance abuse disorder app called reSET that Novartis will market and detail to doctors. Connected insulin pens from Novartis are also on the way, with smart inhalers not far behind.

RELATED: FDA clears Pear’s smartphone app therapy for opioid use disorder

It’s not a market that pharma can afford to ignore. The number of people using digital therapeutics will increase from an estimated 4.5 million in 2018 to 130 million by 2023, according to Juniper Research, with estimated sales ranging from $6 billion to $9 billion.

Pharma faces plenty of hurdles in digital therapeutics. Patient trust, physician buy-in and the need for widespread adoption are just a few of those—not to mention internal company wrangling and struggles to overhaul and rethink timeworn go-to-market strategies.

Still, when it works, it works. Pfizer’s Quitters Circle app has been so effective in helping people smoke less or quit that this year it launched its LivingWith app, a similar tool and daily companion for people with cancer.

Pfizer’s Savitri Basavaiah, oncology portfolio marketing team leader at Pfizer, told FiercePharma this summer that while the components of the app, including social circle support, could be pulled together individually, “this puts it all in one place.” That kind of unique usefulness will be key to Big Pharma’s future success in digital therapeutics and software-as-drug delivery.