Guest Column | November 22, 2021

How Can We Speed Up Adoption Of Digital Therapeutics?

By Jeff Weness, head of digital opportunities and business intelligence, Otsuka America Pharmaceutical Inc.

Online virtual doctor telehealth iStock-1001338258

It’s clear that the digital therapeutics (DTx) industry has found new ways to harness the unique power of emerging technologies to improve health. The 2021 DTx East conference highlighted both the tremendous progress made in the industry over the past few years as well as the ongoing challenges of moving into the next phase of growth and, ultimately, getting digital therapeutics into more patients’ lives.

Recent progress includes advancements in wearable sensors and augmented/virtual reality and the adoption of health-focused artificial intelligence chatbots. These technologies, along with 5G connectivity, have allowed more DTx developers to focus on creating therapies over core technology. Increasing amounts of capital have become available to the ecosystem as corporate and venture money continues to move into the space.  COVID-19 has also created momentum for digital health companies, as it accelerated the adoption of telemedicine and remote patient monitoring.

Raising Awareness Of Prescription DTx

While wellness-focused therapies (non-prescription) saw massive adoption, speakers at DTx East highlighted some of the critical challenges in achieving similar scale for prescription DTx.   

As a sign of industry progress, a patient-focused panel allowed the audience to hear directly from users of DTx. Panelists discussed experiences across a variety of prescription DTx ranging from smoking cessation to ADHD treatments. Each highlighted the treatment successes and challenges they experience as patients in accessing and using their respective therapies. These challenges lie across three areas: education, operations, and measurement.

Acceptance of digital therapies is growing among physicians. However, the patient panel highlighted efforts to educate their healthcare teams about these new treatment options. Educational efforts ranged from providing research studies to instruction on how to prescribe these treatments. Many at the conference expressed a desire to partner with medical schools and medical educational groups to create a pathway for information sharing.

Once the physician has been educated and writes the script, operational challenges arise for multiple stakeholders. Again, unlike the traditional pharmacy supply chain, the supply chain for DTx is still under development.  For home-based DTx, companies must ship devices and provide support to the patients. For clinic-based therapies, the physician’s office must take delivery and be responsible for the technical and physical maintenance of the device (tablet, VR, complementary sensors, etc.). 

Other operational challenges often include in-home Wi-Fi setup, security and privacy during sessions, ongoing software updates and maintenance, and, eventually, returning the equipment. The completion of relatively mundane tasks like password resets and phone/tablet updates or upgrades can be amplified when the software and device are critical to a patient’s ongoing treatment.

The panel highlighted the continuing challenges of finding insurance coverage for many digital therapies. While wellness-focused DTx have found some success going direct to consumer, direct to employer, and engaging with health insurers at scale, prescription DTx are still working to find the support for system-level payment for services analogous to the traditional pharma model.

Each of the patients on the panel discussed the positive impact of their respective DTx on their condition.  However, at scale, deeper and richer objective measurement was discussed as critical to achieve the goals for awareness and adoption by the healthcare establishment.  Physicians and payers will shift their behaviors when abundant evidence is presented using large sample sizes.

The amazing power of DTx is in the real (and real-time) data generated by users, but this must be coupled with outcomes data and comparative analysis demonstrating that DTx improve (or at least equal) outcomes and lower costs or reduce barriers to care. 

Investing In The Future Of Digital Health

The DTx industry is young and opportunities for strategic collaborations are plentiful. To accelerate the adoption of digital therapies, it is critical for pharma, payers, providers, and entrepreneurs to align around solving the challenges posed by the patients at DTx East. Collaborations will be most successful when mission and vision are the driving force behind the potential alliance. 

One such example is the launch of Otsuka’s Digital Pioneer Initiative (ODPI), announced at DTx East. The initiative is designed to accelerate the development of digital therapies and the supporting ecosystem through strategic engagements with early-stage companies. To that end, the company has made a strategic investment in Mindful Mamas — a digital solution for maternal and family mental wellness.

In addition to investing in digital therapies, ODPI also plans to invest in the development of key technologies critical to scale across the industry. One such area is digital biomarkers. Digital biomarkers are the output of active and passive sensors used to objectively measure a change in an individual’s behavioral patterns. These changes could be indicative of a change in the status of an individual’s mental health status. These objective measurements of patient health, when combined with standard patient-reported mental health measures, aim to accelerate the creation of the evidence needed to accelerate both provider adoption and payer reimbursement. 

There is little doubt that digital therapeutic solutions and biomarkers will shape the future of mental healthcare. This modernization of care delivery in a manner that is accessible to patients in ways that reduce stigma and access barriers has the power to make life-changing impacts. This is just the beginning.

About The Author:

Jeff Weness is head of digital opportunities and business intelligence for Otsuka America Pharmaceutical Inc. He has more than 15 years of healthcare leadership experience and previously held roles at UnitedHealth Group and Children's of Minnesota. Prior to entering healthcare, he spent time in the retail and technology industries. He sits on the boards of First Rushmore Bancorporation, Inc., and Camp Odayin, which provides residential, day, and family camps for kids born with heart disease. He holds an MBA from the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management and a BA from Concordia College.