Debate: Can mobile apps achieve what pills can't?

In a pair of point-counterpoint articles at Forbes, contributors Dave Chase and David Shaywitz face off on the question of whether mobile apps could someday be more effective than prescription drugs--a response to health app company Happtique's plans to build a platform for physicians to "prescribe" apps to their patients.

Chase, the CEO of patient portal and relationship-management company, sounds a dire warning that apps pose a huge threat to a lethargic pharma industry. He likens pharma execs to those of the newspaper industry 15 years ago, who saw the landscape changing around them, but did too little to adapt. 

Chase urges pharma execs to get out of the stands and put more skin in the game in terms of money and people.

Drawing from his experience as founder of Microsoft's Health platform, Chase points to Xbox and Expedia as the only two true successes from the tens of billions Microsoft has spend on research and development. The key to their success, he believes, was that they were unshackled from Microsoft's other products--not even required to use Windows. Not being required to support core, legacy business freed these units to truly be innovative, he writes.

Shaywitz, a physician-scientist and management consultant who works for a biopharmaceutical company in San Francisco, agrees there are profound opportunities in digital health, but counters that it's not a "magic pill," so to speak. He points to two basic opportunities: through engagement to motivate patients to better behaviors and to improve science through better measurement, and hence better data, at its base.

"The development of an effective vaccine did a lot more for the treatment of polio than applying the best design thinking to the construction of an iron lung ever could," he writes. "I worry a bit that in our fascination with technology and design--which matter a lot for patients in the here and now--we're neglecting the need figure out some way to get at the difficult biological questions that remain at the root of disease."

He, too, sees pharma's willingness to sit on the sidelines as an impediment to revolutionary change. In the end, both writers agree that health improvement will require a combination of old and new techniques.

In a separate Forbes piece, writer Zina Moukheiber notes that though seemingly a natural partner, pharma has lagged behind telecom and health insurance in teaming up with health technology companies.

To learn more:
- read an overview of the issue on Forbes.
- read Chase's commentary
- read Shaywitz's take