Can pharma + tech wearables be a match made in patient heaven?

The super jock at the gym sporting the Apple Watch and the soccer mom running by with a Fitbit are typical early adopters of wearable tech. They're into it for fitness. But wearables are moving into healthcare, as patients, physicians and providers try on-body tech as a way to gather real-world data and improve treatment results, particularly for patients with chronic conditions.

Even drugmakers are experimenting. There's been a rush to partner with tech companies in the past year or two, with many tech + pharma deals struck and testing underway. Including UCB, Pfizer ($PFE), Novartis ($NVS), Sanofi ($SNY), to name a few.

But the inevitable question is this: Where's the payoff?

Steve Girling

"Direct benefits (for pharma) are few and far between," said Steve Girling, president of Ipsos Healthcare. "It really comes down to something as simple as engaging the population in being more healthy. It has to be a platform that drives engagement without commitment … Wearable tech is another potential or emerging channel in what has become a multi-channel market for pharma to reach people."

Pharma companies own neither the hardware nor the direct patient relationship. So, drugmakers will have to continue relying on partnerships to deliver wearable value to consumers--at least for now. That's not a bad thing; tech companies also own just one piece of the puzzle, and they need pharma as much as it needs them.

Last summer, biopharmaceutical UCB partnered with MC10, the maker of a flexible skin-adhering sensor called BioStamp, to test and evaluate the use of the device in monitoring people with neurological disorders. No results have been shared yet. More recently, Biogen ($BIIB) partnered with PatientsLikeMe to monitor patients with multiple sclerosis, while Pfizer worked with AARP and UnitedHealthcare ($UNH) to outfit people over 50 with fitness trackers.

Google ($GOOG) and Novartis' Alcon eyecare division announced a partnership last year to develop uses for "smart" contact lenses. The first focus areas are for people with diabetes, using the lens to monitor glucose levels using tear fluid, and for people with presbyopia who can't read without glasses anymore, using the lens for automated vision correction.

Those are just a few of the current initiatives with many more to come. It's clear that there is interest and experimentation, but what's not clear is either the best path to adoption or the specific benefit. The tech partnerships do work to build brand value and positive relationships with consumers, but it's a different kind of marketing for pharmas used to relaying drug benefits in DTC ads.

"Pharma needs to take a whole health approach," Girling said. "What other things are they doing beyond selling drugs or making claims in the marketplace? What are the compelling things they're doing to support patient communities?"

That's a question payers have been asking pharma companies, too. And drug-plus-digital deals are becoming one answer. Novartis is planning 10 pilot projects in that vein. "We would go in with a package of services including the pharmaceutical, the technology that will help that patient comply, a warning system that showed if that patient was not complying," CEO Joe Jimenez recently told Bloomberg. "We will have to partner with companies that have like interests in the tech space."

- see the release from MC10 and UCB
- read the Google and Alcon announcement