Embroiled in scandal, Purdue Pharma backs a digital approach to opioid dependency

Purdue Pharma's interest in using mHealth apps to reduce opioid use has been met with skepticism.

A drug manufacturer that has been blamed for the country’s opioid crisis is partnering with a Pennsylvania health system to determine if a mobile app can help patients reduce or eliminate pain medication.

Purdue Pharma, which manufactures OxyContin, is partnering with Geisinger Health System to study a new approach that allows patients with chronic pain to transmit information to their physician through an iPhone or Apple Watch, according to Buzzfeed News.

Using Apple’s ResearchKit, the drug manufacturer plans to test a digital approach to pain management on 200 patients at Geisinger. Data is recorded through an app and fed into a patient’s EHR, allowing physicians to modify pain medication prescriptions or identify alternative pain management techniques based on a stream of real-time information.

Over the past year, the pharmaceutical company has weathered an onslaught of negative press and continues to face legal repercussions for its marketing practices nearly a decade after paying $635 million in fines for downplaying the addiction risks associated with OxyContin.

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Last year, court records revealed the extent to which the company sought to prevent preauthorization of OxyContin in West Virginia, an area that has been among the hardest hit by the epidemic. Given Purdue’s unsavory history that some believe served as the bedrock for addiction in communities across the country, addiction experts are skeptical of the company’s newfound interest in mobile health interventions.

“I’m just very suspicious that they’re interested in developing a tool that will help people get off of their medicines,” Andrew Kolodny, co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University, told Buzzfeed News. “When I hear about this, I wonder if it’s all an effort by Purdue to get good [public relations].”

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However, pain management experts have acknowledged that wearables could play a key role in battling opioid addiction by allowing patients to take an active role in treatment. Meanwhile, telemedicine has emerged as a new tool in federal efforts to fight opioid abuse in rural areas of the country.