Author: Matthew Arnold, Principal Analyst

  • Merck’s Alexa Diabetes Challenge has a winner in Wellpepper’s Sugarpod, a “multimodal diabetes care plan solution” that incorporates voice interaction for condition management as well as an Alexa-enabled scale and foot scanner that searches for foot ulcers using AI, “but will eventually do thermographic sensing and neuropathy testing for even earlier detection,” per a Fierce Pharma report. The other four finalists are worth keeping an eye on, too!
  • More rumblings from Mount Amazon. Will the e-retail juggernaut, having made a light snack of Whole Foods, get into the pharmacy business, thereby turning the PBM business upside down and giving pharmas a tough new sparring partner to bargain with on prices and discounts? The Magic 8-Ball says “Strong Maybe.” Or “Yes,” depending on which account you read.  They’ll make a decision by Thanksgiving, one way or the other, according to CNBC, which reports that Amazon has built an internal PBM for company employees as part of the process (and also that it maintains a health team called 1492 to develop health applications for Echo and Dash Wand). Meanwhile, a much-circulated analyst note says the company is in talks with mid-sized PBMs which could give it a vehicle to launch with.
  • PBMs and retail pharmacies are battening down the hatches in preparation for Amazon’s entry. CVS is in talks to buy Aetna, one of the nation’s largest insurers (whose attempt to merge with rival Humana collapsed under antitrust scrutiny back in February). Part of the logic of this marriage is that an Aetna acquisition would deliver a huge new customer base to CVS’s PBM, giving it more leverage over pharmas. Amazon hasn’t even decided whether or not it’s getting in, and it’s already roiling the marketplace, fueling an already-turbulent wave of consolidation.
  • Amazon is also establishing a beachhead against Google’s programmatic hegemony. “While much of ad tech plumbing is interchangeable, Amazon has something new to bring to the party: proprietary commerce and behavioral data,” writes Digiday.
  • Apple is reportedly exploring a move into bricks-and-mortar of its own, eyeing a possible acquisition of Crossover Health, which runs on-site medical clinics for large employers including Apple and Facebook. Such a move could complement Apple’s investment in healthcare applications for the Apple Watch and its suite of health apps.
  • Apple is also giving advertisers and agencies angina by disabling most cookies on its Safari browser through what the company calls Intelligent Tracking Prevention. For Apple, it’s a means of throwing an elbow into a competitor – Google’s Chrome – by grabbing some more market share in a mobile browser space it already dominates. I found this meditation on the dynamics and implications for digital publishers instructive.
  • Here’s a great run-down of how marketers should be thinking about voice search as “V-commerce” begins to take off.
  • The AMA has convened a group of health and tech giants, including IBM and Cerner, to develop a standard for structuring and organizing health data. Dubbed the Integrated Health Model Initiative, the effort aims to speed the shift to value-based models of care through shared data frameworks.   
  • Pharmas are following P&G’s lead in looking to trim digital marketing spend by rooting out ineffective online advertising, such as ads served to bots or those with problematic content adjacencies. It’s like the old aphorism, variously attributed, about knowing that half your ad budget is being wasted – only in an age of big data and targeted advertising, it’s increasingly possible for advertisers to know exactly which half is wasted.
  • Pharma is also raiding big tech for talent in a big way – particularly GSK and J&J. “GSK alone has more than a dozen former employees from the largest tech companies working under its chief data officer, who was himself recruited from Samsung,” reports CNBC.
  • Elsewhere in tech-pharma hybridization news, Janssen has developed a “mobile platform for trial supply management and patient engagement that can track medication adherence to each pill,” reports Fierce Biotech.
  • Point of care marketing startup Outcome Health has been an emerging star in the digital healthcare marketing scene, attracting major investors and racking up $130 million in 2016 sales to pharma clients, but a Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that the company was padding the number of waiting room screens it boasted and inflating ad performance and tracking data.
  • Point of care is white hot, regardless, with 10-20% of pharma brands moving spend from digital media to digital point of care, according to a ZS Associates survey. It’s one way to reach patients at a key “moment that matters,” to borrow the Googleism.
  • Merck has launched a Facebook Messenger chatbot for physicians in Italy. The MSD Salute Bot “provides info on a given product and pathology to physicians, who must register with the company” and “may ask questions or click a button from a carousel.”
  • GSK is using near-field communications (NFC) chips in packaging for its OTC allergy medication Flonase to provide consumers in Canada product info through their smartphones.
  • Anthem launched a new digital health platform, dubbed Engage, in partnership with Castlight Health, incorporating telemedicine, nurse calls and tracker-powered wellness programs. It’s designed to “allow employers to connect to all of their members, not just those with chronic conditions, for engagement and activation efforts,” using machine learning and AI to target individuals that may benefit from an intervention, Mobihealthnews reports. Meanwhile, John Hancock, the life insurer, announced it will make Apple Watches available to policyholders who meet exercise benchmarks for a $25 activation fee, much as insurer Aetna has been considering doing.

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