As America's health system becomes increasingly digitized and medical professionals and patients adopt mobile and tablet technology, digital health apps are gaining prominence as tools for monitoring health, educating consumers, and raising awareness of a brand, treatment, or disease.
In recent months, the FDA has cleared a number of apps and attachments, including a blood pressure monitoring cuff, a CT-scan viewer, and a hairbrush-sized ultrasound device, all with price tags that appeal to a cost-conscious healthcare system.
By 2015, 30% of the world's smartphone users will be accessing health products, according to mobile market consultancy Research2guidance.
After its research found how hard it is for doctors to describe atrial fibrillation (A-fib) and its treatment options to patients, pharma giant Sanofi asked Chandler Chicco Companies to develop an iPhone app, Android app, and a desktop widget called AFib Educator 2.0.
The app allows doctors to show patients 3-D animations of the heart and its reactions to A-fib treatments. The app includes information about symptoms and risks of A-fib and is integrated within the phone so doctors can directly email supplemental information to patients.
"It was made very simple," says Karen Preble, director of multaq marketing at Sanofi. "Even without a physician there, a patient could look at the app and understand. The original intention of the app was to facilitate the physician-patient dialogue."
The app was built by Chandler Chicco working with Sanofi's AF Stat group, which raises awareness of A-fib.
AF Stat promotes the app at medical conferences and events and in most A-fib-related press releases sent out to the group's members, which include professional cardiovascular and medical organizations and patient advocacy groups. Preble says getting the app into the iTunes App Store also raised awareness.
Due to strict FDA regulations, developing health apps can be challenging, especially when tied to a drug or brand.
For blood-pressure drug Diovan, Novartis sponsored a free branded app, MyRefill Rx. Designed to help patients manage their illness, it sends medication and appointment reminders, allows consumers to order prescriptions, and includes an interactive blood pressure log patients can email directly to a physician.
Amylin Pharmaceuticals has a drug that helps people manage diabetes, but in a crowded app market, it sought something to help it stand out.
Chandler Chicco helped develop Diabetes Life Harmonized, an unbranded app from Amylin that teaches people about their condition and helps them take charge of their disease.
Consumers can sit with their doctors, plug in health information and goals, and then track weekly reports that are sent to doctors through the app. The messaging and communications strategy was all based around diabetes sufferers, but a secondary campaign was also put together to educate doctors about the app and how they could introduce it to patients to help them control their diabetes.
Ritesh Patel, global head of digital and social at Chandler Chicco, says the regulatory timeline for developing branded and unbranded apps is similar, as both require approvals. However, branded apps have different rules and can be more challenging to create. For example, with a branded app, safety and prescribing information must be prominent throughout.
"You must be careful and think all the legal and regulatory ramifications through," advises Patel.
Sanofi's A-Fib app is unbranded and getting approvals from internal medical and regulatory departments took about 10 weeks. The medical departments review all collateral while legal teams ensure materials adhere to regulatory guidelines.
Patel says the market for health apps for doctors and consumers is booming at the moment and is playing a large role in the firm's work for clients. However, the medium is growing so quickly that it can be hard for agencies and clients to keep up with all of the regulatory guidelines.
Edie DeVine, director of the tech health practice at GCI Health, adds that due to the strong focus on healthcare in 2011 and 2012, many publications seek out stories relating to how technology is impacting patient care. A successful tactic is to pitch personal stories about apps from doctors or patients on the usefulness of the technology while remaining compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
"Healthcare technology is a burgeoning industry," notes DeVine. "Communicators in this space must be able to effectively communicate the role of both technology and healthcare in America's health system and how it all plays together. That is going to be pivotal over the next 12 to 15 months."