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Drugmakers Create Mobile Phone Apps to Track Diabetes, Cancer

Novartis AG Headquarters in Basel
Drugmakers led by Novartis AG and Merck & Co. boosted investments in mobile phone applications and educational websites by 78 percent. Photographer: Adrian Moser/Bloomberg

Drugmakers led by Merck & Co. and Novartis AG boosted investments in mobile phone applications and educational websites by 78 percent to get patients to take their drugs, eat right and exercise, an Ernst & Young report found.

Pharmaceutical companies initiated 97 projects last year aimed at using information technologies to improve patient health, according to the report by the New York-based consulting firm, which relied on analyst reports and press releases to reach its tally. That compares with 124 projects started in the four prior years combined. About 41 percent of the projects were smartphone applications, an increase from 11 percent since 2006.

Government-run health plans are pressuring drugmakers to prove their products are worth the prices charged, so companies are taking a greater role in making sure patients succeed with treatments. France’s 2011 budget reduced drug spending by 560 million euros ($755 million), mostly by cutting medications with marginal benefits, researchers said. The U.K. plans to set drug payments to match product benefits beginning in 2014.

“Pharma can’t exist the way they have existed; what is surprising is the pace of change,” said Carolyn Buck Luce, Ernst & Young’s global pharmaceutical leader, in a telephone interview. “The next big change in health outcomes is behavioral change, where medicines play an important part but not the only part.”

The report didn’t include the amount of money drugmakers invested in such projects.

Changing Technology

Health information is changing the ways drugmakers develop medicines and communicate with doctors, insurers and patients, the report said. Information from patient records is helping companies design more cost-effective clinical trials and tailor marketing materials to the people who most need them. For example, mobile phone software can help patients find clinical trials for cancer or track blood-sugar levels.

Investments by drugmakers are falling behind non-pharmaceutical companies, including Fairfield, Connecticut-based General Electric Co., Vancouver-based Telus Corp., Canada’s third-largest wireless carrier, and International Business Machines Corp., based in Armonk, New York, which have committed to spending at least $20 billion on health-related information services, according to Ernst & Young. Pharmaceutical companies have invested “a small fraction of that,” Luce said. Over the next decade, monitoring patient care and proving results will be an increasing part of their business, she said.

Applications created for Apple Inc.’s iPhone include a German language DiabetesMapp, which helps patients map specialists nearby, by Abbott Park, Illinois-based Abbott Laboratories; Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-based Merck’s Vree for diabetes education and tracking of blood glucose, nutrition, and activity; and Basel, Switzerland-based Novartis’s VaxTrak to keep records of vaccinations.

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