SXSW – South Bites


Dan Weaden is Head of Strategy for Havas Lynx London. In addition to musing on the future of healthcare and tech, he has 14 years of experience shaping brand and campaign strategies that are ‘on point’ – defining compelling messages, relevant to the audience, delivered through a unique brand experience.

And so the Texan dust has just about settled on SXSW 2016…

There are many great reports on the key themes, buzzwords, emerging trends and cool tech coming out of ‘south by’, for example this from Havas Health and this showing trends from the broader Havas Group.

Here, I’ve gathered the balloon strings to give my point of view of what it all means for healthcare.

To consider what these converging social, political and tech movements mean for our world of healthcare provision, pharmaceutical companies (at a global and local level) and healthcare marketers.

To provide a glimpse at what the future could be for the millennial generation.

A world where pharma no longer sell drugs, but sells code

You’d need to have your head firmly in the clouds to not already be witnessing how tech is ramping up its impact on healthcare provision, whether it be Proteus Digital Health’s tablets with ingestible microchips or more recently advancements in 3D pill printing.

One of the most inspiring sessions from SXSW came from a panel discussing the potential of Bioelectronics. Moncef Slaoui, the Chairman of Global Vaccines at GSK, Kate Rosenbluth, CEO of Cala Health and Walter Voit, Assistant Professor at the University of Texas, described how tiny electronic devices can be implanted and attached to a nerve to tap into the electronic pulses of the body’s nervous system. Programming the device to recalibrate – making subtle changes to the natural language of the body – can treat chronic conditions like diabetes, arthritis, asthma, healing bone fractures…the applications are endless.

The benefits, of course, are no chemicals, no injections, no pills. As a targeted therapy, no flooding the whole body with side-effect causing drugs in order to treat one organ.  And perhaps most importantly, no adherence challenges.

Whilst an exciting, emerging tech at this stage, if successful, it poses some significant questions to the healthcare world as we know it. Will we see a future in which pharma no longer sells drugs, but electrical programmes for these electronic devices? With security high on the agenda, would ‘body hacking’ become a real and serious threat? And with Apple’s data protection debate still fresh in the mind, who would own the patient data generated by these devices and how would it be used?

A world where primary care no longer exists

Primary care is dead. Long live primary care!

The IBM Watson exhibition at SXSW was able to recommend a cocktail drink to you based on your social profile and interests. And whilst a nice way to get some respite from the street pounding and hubbub of Austin during ‘south by’, it also sparked some more provocative thinking.

The wide and increasing adoption of wearables, injectables, textile-integrated sensors and other ‘forgettable technology’, combined with big data and AI means that patients are increasingly able to understand, prevent and predict their condition. Recently CEO, Ginni Rometty described IBM as being in the ‘cognition business’.

The very nature of GPs is to study and diagnose a broad range of conditions (hence the role as general practitioners). Whilst secondary care specialist have a role (for now) to treat and manage specific conditions once diagnosed, is the role of the primary care GP becoming redundant? Are the informed and socially connected millennial patients of tomorrow already beyond the knowledge base and diagnosis of a primary care physician? Can they be replaced by predictive devices and AI?

Not satisfied, tech has another blow to land in this battle, with the uptake and advances in telehealth. In his presentation ‘Healthcare On-Demand Meets the Quantified Self’, former Apple CEO John Sculley described the future role of primary care physicians as ‘Care Traffic Controllers’, citing that by 2020, 80% of general practitioner visits could be done remotely. Clearly giant tech providers agree, with Microsoft advances in Hololens among many remote communication platforms that will make this prediction a reality.

A world where patients become loyal to a pharma company

Driven by generics and biosimilars, the dynamic of the pharmaceutical world is changing as we speak. The availability of multiple treatment options and choices and the rise of the empowered patient (typified by shared treatment decision making) means pharma companies need to find new patient focused ways to compete and stay ahead. Beyond the pill services, patient support programmes and the like represent a well-trodden path, but the millennial patients of tomorrow are more demanding. They require tailored treatment programmes that consider their lifestyle and work around them. Adherence is flipped on its head and the problem becomes reframed, from “how can we make a patient adhere to our drug” to “how can our drug adhere to this patients lifestyle”.

And yet, in a world of ever decreasing (and sometimes questionable) differences between competing drug performance, there can be great riches for those who are able to empathise and connect to patients in these new ways. Consumers are fiercely loyal to the brands they like to consume or that represent them. With Millennial patients using social platforms to seek out, review or champion brands and treatments, a self-fulfilling bond and loyalty can be formed.

As Brian Solis, Principal Analyst, Altimeter Group proclaimed at SXSW “Loyalty and Advocacy are the by-product of meaningful and personal experiences…now and over time”.

But what if that loyalty can be earned beyond the treatment of that one condition? What if a patient feels so understood, supported and cared for by one pharma companies approach, that they want to go back to that same company when they have a different ailment requiring a different drug? Can loyalty and brand preference be levered at a corporate level? Is this equity tangible and transferable – for example, would a millennial seeking treatment show greater affinity to a company that once supported their father so well during a difficult illness?

A world where the millennial ‘me, me, me’ mindset moulds the shape of healthcare provision

Do millennials represent healthcare’s superheroes? They certainly think so. A 2015 Havas Worldwide research study into millennials showed that 82% (worldwide 18-25 years old), feel they have the power to change the world.

Millennial doctors are moving into entrepreneurship, digital health and innovation, and away from practise. Graduating medical students are even by-passing practise completely, with up to a third in some medical schools choosing to go straight into business, policy, digital health, or other pursuits outside of the clinical realm.

Millennial healthcare professionals seek to disrupt rather than provide healthcare. 

The millennial physician mindset is on improving the healthcare system with reform and innovation rather than treat sick patients. Their motivation is to turn the tap off, not plug the leaking bucket.

Furthermore, healthcare infrastructure and social trends are supporting this movement. Accessibility and falling prices of tech along with kick-starter type funding is fuelling entrepreneurial thinking. Funding and support from national health schemes (e.g. NHS England’s Clinical Entrepreneur Programme) and private sector venture-capitalist support from big pharma further supporting and realising millennial HCPs ambitions.

Whilst this all sounds very exciting, we also need to think about the broader impact on an already creaking national health system (such as the NHS in England), which already relies on locums and migrant healthcare professionals to prop it up.

We must also consider the patient perspective. In the SXSW debate “Millennials in Medicine: Good or Bad for Health?” the conversation turned to how the news would be received if patients were aware that their doctor or surgeon spent half their week building alternative business interests. Would they welcome the fresh perspective of new potential treatment options, or would they perceive a doctor lacking focus or ‘rusty’ from infrequently performing surgery.

A world where ‘big pharma’ doesn’t exist

Perhaps the most radical and provocative thought of all – how will the growing interest in healthcare amongst the digital superpowers influence the shape of the wellness and healthcare industry in the future?

Undoubtedly, the traditional ‘competitive set’ shape-shifts. The longstanding global ‘big pharma’ companies will be joined by the big five of Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple. If more proof were needed, Apple’s recent launch of CareKit to complement ResearchKit and HealthKit shows a real statement of intent.

If we think about wellness and healthcare provision as being broader than the supply of drugs, who is best placed to serve the millennial patients of tomorrow?

Certainly the big five tech companies above have all the attributes to be successful:

The budgets and corporate scale
The global social platforms and networks
The huge customer base and trusting relationships
The culture for technical and digital innovation
The access to customer data and analytics

Meanwhile ‘big pharma’ has struggled to get to grips and define the role of many of these essentials.

Of course, the obvious retort in the defence of ‘big pharma’ is to talk about the R&D investment and regulations. But with the world as its ‘lab’ and with the right investment in legal and regulatory, we could see further encroachment into the traditional pharma space from these tech powerhouses. In time, could pharma companies be marginalised into drug manufacture alone?

For sure, it provokes the question ‘Who’s got the biggest job to do?’ The tech companies in establishing the regulatory capabilities to further compete in the pharma world, or the pharma companies who need to establish the list above to best serve patients of tomorrow?