Can providers help patients by partnering with pharma on digital health? Geisinger says yes

Geisinger Health System faciliity
Pharmaceutical companies share Geisinger’s goal of innovating to improve patient outcomes, said the Pennsylvania health system's chief pharmacy officer. (Geisinger)

Many would say the healthcare system is broken. Its hardware is defective, producing high prices and subpar outcomes. Collaboration and coordination require a concerted effort, as though the wires connecting its components are tangled and frayed.

Solutions are often discussed as an all-encompassing cure-all, something that arrives in a neatly packaged box labeled “disruption.”  

But Geisinger Health System is instead trying to untangle the wires and to solder new connections that may, at first glance, seem unusual.

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Over the past year, it has worked with major pharmaceutical companies to design consumer-facing digital solutions for common health problems. It developed mobile apps to manage asthma with AstraZeneca and a wearable app to manage pain with Purdue. It also joined forces with Merck to develop tools for patients and caregivers to improve care coordination and medication adherence.

RELATED: Geisinger and Merck unveil EHR-embedded apps for medication management, care coordination

“Most people don’t think that large pharma has an interest in patient care, when in reality, they do,” Evans said.

Tosh Butt, vice president of AstraZeneca’s respiratory business, said the asthma apps arm patients and physicians “with the intention of speeding diagnosis and treatment decisions.”

And while many point to Purdue’s aggressive marketing of OxyContin as the original sin of the opioid crisis, the company now wants to “look beyond traditional pharmacological treatments for pain patients,” according to Thomas Alfieri, Ph.D., the company's director of Medical Affairs Strategic Research.  

RELATED: 'First of its kind' hospital-led generic drug company Civica Rx aims to address shortages, high prices

Granted, this isn't the first time providers and drug companies have come together to devise unique solutions for patients, according to Nina Kjellson, a partner with consulting firm Canaan. This fall, Baxter and Mayo Clinic announced plans to build a renal care center in Florida. Genzyme and Cleveland Clinic have been researching treatments for multiple sclerosis together since 2014. 

But embarking on multiple collaborations with pharma at once makes Geisinger unique, she said. And the system's focus on digital health appears to be new to the industry. 

“I think when a pharma company wants to understand how digital technology … can improve outcomes from their medication, Geisinger stands out as a partner of choice to do those explorations,” Kjellson said, calling the Pennsylvania system “an incredible innovator in healthcare delivery and healthcare economics.”

The shift to value-based care is a consideration for providers and drug manufacturers since both are increasingly reimbursed based on patient outcomes. Data and technology can be used to reach patients, individualize care, and improve adherence to treatment plans—all of which can result in better patient outcomes and higher reimbursement. 

Although the companies have plans to commercialize some of the apps in the future, Evans said the projects have not been lucrative to Geisinger or the drug companies thus far. Moreover, the apps are “100% separate” from Geisinger’s formulary, he said.

Neither Geisinger nor any of the drug companies provided a timeline for when they planned to commercialize the apps or how that revenue would be divided.

Historically, the blurred lines between pharmaceutical manufacturers and providers have raised alarms. But Alfieri said Purdue only provided Geisinger funding and research assistance; it has had “no direct communication with the doctors in terms of patient treatment or how they’re interacting with patients,” he said.

It may seem counterintuitive for drug companies to develop and promote nonpharmacological treatments. But these partnerships can help drug companies build brand affinity, Kjellson said. Plus, when patients feel they benefit from the drugs at hand, their medication adherence could increase, which would also benefit the manufacturers.

In Purdue’s case specifically, developing an opioid alternative could also be a matter of optics. Kjellson said she “wouldn’t call it marketing only, but it could be part of their evolving their business beyond what has made their revenues to-date.”

Perhaps Purdue is looking for a way to right its past wrongs. Or maybe Geisinger's partnerships are emblematic of a broader shift in healthcare, where industry players are looking for new ways to tackle healthcare's most pressing problems.

As Evans said: "Delivery partners that you wouldn’t have thought of in the past, we need to be thinking of today.”