Want to make a pharma app people will actually use? Put yourself in patients’ shoes, consultant says

Gregg Fisher of The Stem offers these questions and tips for pharma companies when developing patient-facing apps.

All apps are not created equal. That's especially true in pharma, where traditional practices haven't always included a patient perspective. That’s changing, however, and as many pharma companies shift to patient-centric marketing models, so should app development strategies, says industry consultant Gregg Fisher. 

Fisher, the founder and managing partner at digital engagement health consultancy The Stem, has been thinking and writing about why pharma apps haven’t been more widely adopted. In Apple's most recent highlighted list of 24 patient apps, reported by MobiHealthNews, only one was from a pharma company—Myriad Genetic's MyRA app. 

To assist pharma companies, Fisher has developed a series of questions and tips that he thinks pharma marketers should consider when they’re thinking about creating new patient-facing apps (see chart above.)

“In some ways, it’s been the curse of chasing the shiny new thing instead of really taking the time to think about why they’re doing it in the first place,” he said. “For apps to be successful, pharma is stepping into, to some degree, the publishing business. Patients have a lot of choices in terms of apps that are out there. … Why would they need an app that’s focused on a single product from a pharmaceutical company?”

He said pharma companies need to widen thinking beyond product apps for one drug or treatment and instead create disease management apps. While that may not result in immediate sales, it should result in longer-term benefits such as a more patient-centric reputation and direct relationships with patients and key opinion leaders.

"Patients look at the world through the lens of their disease and the lens of their health. They care about a tool or solution that will help them manage their condition and will be helpful. One the other hand, brand managers look at the world in terms of, 'how do I increase the adoption and compliance of my product,'" he said.

Some pharma companies have been prolific in the app arena, but for most it’s been a slow start, albeit for a reason, Fisher said. For the past 50 years, brand management in pharma has been about providing marketing materials to sales reps. The patient wasn’t one of drugmakers' customers. That’s changed, however, and today, patients—along with sales reps and healthcare providers—are all pharma customers, which requiresa multi-channel approach.

Companies like Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and GlaxoSmithKline have been pushing forward with patient-minded apps like Quitter's Circle, Moodivator, AZHelps, and the Cold and Flu Tracker.

“Pharma needs to recognize they’re not just in the pill business anymore, they’re in the solutions business and the health optimization business,” Fisher said. “We’re seeing a lot of companies investing in this area … There is a recognition that change needs to happen, but like anything, it takes time.”