From our vantage point on the threshold of the new year, the single biggest story of 2016 for healthcare marketers and technologists is that of a surprise election result that will mean hugely disruptive changes in healthcare policy in the coming years. But to dwell too much on The Donald is selling 2016 short. Besides killing Prince, David Bowie, George Michael, Carrie Fisher and the Affordable Care Act, to name but a few worthies, 2016 was a very eventful year in digital health and the broader healthcare world.

On the tech front, 2016 was the year AI arrivedGoogle scaled up its DeepMind machine learning collaboration with the NHS. IBM’s Watson Health acquired Truven Analytics, with its motherlode of data and a massive book of clients, partnered with just about everyone in healthcare and spun off a myriad of eye-popping projects (including the first effort at “cognitive advertising). The advent of voice-controlled hubs like Amazon Echo and Google Home ushered in the mainstreaming of the Internet of Things and pointed the way toward what Microsoft has dubbed “natural computing,” a world in which search, among other things, will be driven by voice-activated bots and virtual assistants. In 2017, marketers will need to begin thinking about optimizing for voice search, and deep learning-driven systems like IBM’s and Google’s will begin to augment the work of healthcare professionals in a big way.

Virtual reality also popped onto our radar in a big way with the superheated hype surrounding Facebook’s Oculus Rift launch. It’s early days for the medium, but a handful of companies, including Cognito, Sharecare and Klick, are working on compelling medical applications including MOA demos for medical conferences and patient education modules. And VR’s neglected cousin augmented reality came roaring back into public consciousness with the runaway success of Pokemon Go.

Telemedicine picked up steam, with retail pharmacy giants and large health systems expanding their remote care capabilities, or partnering to do so, and a few key pilots of remote and continuous monitoring providing proof of concept. This trend line will continue in 2017, with the point of care gradually shifting from episodic touchpoints at bricks-and-mortar locations to more of a continuous care model, incorporating remote monitoring and eventually AI.

Medical science saw some truly mind-blowing advances, from gene-splicing (CRISPR) to immunotherapy (CAR-T), not to mention work on “electroceuticals” and blood-crawling nano-bots. We even got an Ebola vaccine!

Elections aside, it was a busy year on the healthcare front in Washington as CMS finalized MACRA and lawmakers passed the 21st Century Cures Act with unusually broad bipartisan support. The former all but ensures that the shift to value will continue after the ACA is repealed, while the latter opens the door to use of real world and off-label data by pharmas seeking new indications for their products or detailing payers.

FDA offered some clarity on the lines of enforcement around digital deviceslike wearable sensors, and “Software as a Medical Device (think medical apps, or the ones with potentially serious consequences).” The agency also indicated that it might be rethinking its hard line against making product claims in space-constrained media like Twitter or paid search links.

The prospect of better targeting through programmatic advertising began to pique the interest of pharma marketers heretofore shut out of this technological revolution, which has largely taken overthe business of buying digital ad inventory in other sectors.

Big data and mobile health tech began to revolutionize clinical trials, as pilots pairing wearable sensor tech and platforms like Apple’s ResearchKit showed their promise.

Social media is showing increasing promise for pharma marketers. In 2016, our research showed that info shared by through social networks with friends commands greater attention. We also found that many consumers do their homework online before medical appointments, and that informs the patient-physician dialogue. And on the HCP side, we found a hunger for patient education and support resources among physicians, who are increasingly being measured according to metrics designed to foster better patient engagement and higher-quality care.

Financial resources to help patients access medicines are also in demand from pharma among physicians – no surprise, perhaps, after a year in which public ire over drug prices found voice in politicians across the spectrum, and particularly egregious price hikes, such as those taken by Martin Shkreli’s Turing (Daraprim) and Mylan (Epi-Pen), became the focus of intense scrutiny. With many patients struggling to afford the medications they need, we’ll be seeing a lot more of this topic in 2017.


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