At this year's mHealth Summit, pharma firms seemed to indicate that they’re going into medical wearables and mobile tech in a big way.

This year at the mHealth Summit in DC, there was some buzz around an emerging form of connected health dubbed “connected therapy management.”  While guest panelists from companies like Pfizer were coy about the status of their plans—telling us that it was "too soon" to offer details—they confirmed that like their peers in clinical care, they’re going into medical wearables and mobile tech in a big way.

Like doctors, hospitals and technology entrepreneurs, pharmas are well aware that wearable health devices are poised to take over many healthcare delivery processes. They haven’t missed that the uptake of clinical wearables could hit a staggering 50 billion devices by 2020, according to estimates by chipmaker Intel.

While providers may have jumped in first, Qualcomm Life’s Rick Valencia notes that there are huge opportunities in wearables for pharma.

“This convergence of near real-time symptom, device and dosing data presents a treasure trove of clinical context of evidence for greater safety, efficacy and of course profit,” Valencia writes.

New opportunities to improve outcomes

If pharmas can leverage the immense power of connected medical wearables, they can tackle some of the toughest problems on their rosters, including:

  • Medication adherence: At present, more than $564 billion is wasted each year due to poor medication adherence. Working with payers and providers, pharmas could take advantage of wearable technology to guide patients to better medication adherence. This could be especially advantageous for treatment of chronic diseases like diabetes, the treatment of which depends on strong medication adherence. In fact, Valencia notes, improving medication adherence for diabetics could save the US health system $4.7 billion a year.
  • Harm reduction: Pundits estimate that connected therapies could lower the rate of medication errors made by patients. While statistics on medication errors largely focus on administration by hospitals, research makes it clear that avoidable medication mistakes by patients are part of the mix, contributing to the estimated 440,000 patient deaths a year due to medical errors. Medication feedback and reminders from connected wearable medical devices stand a chance at bending the cost curve by billions of dollars, Valencia suggests.
  • Team-based care: Connected therapies offer the chance to create new team-based forms of care linking pharmas, payers, providers, patients and family caregivers. Because medical wearables and mobile technologies are used by the patient much or all of the time, they make it easier for providers to offer care on the patient’s own schedule and where they want and need it. Though continuity of care is still a major challenge for the healthcare industry, team-based connected therapies could help address closing “holes” in the caregiving cycle.

Startups pushing connected therapy forward

As pharmas sort out what their business models will be in connected therapy, startups are doing some of the deciding for them. With enthusiastic backing from mHealth players like Qualcomm Life, whose 2net Platform and Hub are designed to help technology firms deliver a connected health infrastructure, entrepreneurial firms are pushing forward connected therapy solutions.

We’re talking about players like Propeller Health, which has created technology using a Bluetooth-enabled sensor to track use of inhalers and transmit that data to providers. Or there’s iMPak Health, which offers a platform allowing patients to track and upload their medication use; the platform also alerts providers in real time when patients’ medication adherence falls off. Or Ayogo, which offers pharmas and providers access to a medication adherence platform with a social media component, and patients an application which educates and reminds them to take appropriate actions.

All told, it seems that even if pharmas aren’t ready to show their hand just yet, connected therapy management technologies are already going to market—it’s just a question of how much of a role pharmas want to play in shaping their future.

Anne Zieger is a veteran journalist who’s been covering the U.S. healthcare scene for over 25 years. She provides “News with a Twist,” combining solid reporting with expert insights and analysis. Her opinions are her own. You can follow Anne on Twitter @annezieger.