James Steiner looks at five ways the Internet of Things (IoT) is transforming pharma

Anyone who attended CES (the Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas would have been struck by the plethora of digital innovations targeting healthcare. From blood pressure sensors to nausea-reducing wearables to fall detection systems for seniors, it’s clear that AI and the Internet of Things (IoT) are revolutionising health and wellness. While CES focuses primarily on consumer-facing products, there’s no question that IoT has profound implications for the entire pharma ecosystem – all the way up the chain from manufacturing to self-medicating. With the likes of AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Sanofi, GSK, and Roche all driving the digital healthcare agenda, here are a few ways connected devices are transforming the pharma industry.

1. Reducing Medication Errors

In 2017, a review by the Annals of Internal Medicine in the US estimated that approximately 50% of medications for chronic diseases are not taken as prescribed. This is reckoned to cause around 125,000 US deaths annually and cost the country’s healthcare system hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

Patients forgetting or choosing not to take medication is not the only issue facing healthcare systems. Just as problematic is the high number of patients prescribed the wrong medication – leading to adverse drug events. Now, IoT devices can alert patients when to take their drugs, and also inform physicians how the drugs are working. As such, there are upsides for both patient well-being and organisational efficiency. Novartis, for example, partnered with Qualcomm to produce a ‘smart inhaler’ for COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) patients. The inhaler collects data including the duration of patient inhalation – information that a doctor can use to help give feedback. With several pharma firms active in this arena, the smart inhaler market is expected to be worth over $1.4 billion by the middle of the next decade.

Connected pharmaceutical packaging is also able to infer whether a dose has been taken and improve patient commitment to a medication plan. In a similar vein, Google’s healthcare division Verily is developing a disposable glucose sensor that can be worn like a bandage for up to 14 days.

2. Developing better treatments

IoT devices such as bespoke medical equipment, smart pills, implanted devices or wearables don’t just trigger alerts, they also gather patient data. Subject to all the usual concerns about privacy and security, this data can be used to devise treatments or detect the early signs of a medical condition. Medical device manufacturer Consensus Orthopedics, for example, has developed a wearable device for patients that generates data analysing the progress of a new joint. The company worked with IBM Watson Health to equip doctors with dynamic information that can help them alert patients if they aren’t caring for their new joint properly.

Pharma giant Roche, meanwhile, has developed a connected device for users of its blood-thinning drug Warfarin. By enabling patients to monitor their blood coagulation levels from their home, the device helps them to stay within their target range – thus lowering the risk of a stroke. The ability to wirelessly transfer results to a healthcare professional also means fewer onerous visits to hospitals/clinics. Method, meanwhile, has developed an ecosystem of digital tools and devices to gather, plot and monitor data on a user’s mental health (FINE). This enables a family member or carer to intervene promptly when mental health patterns decline.

3. Supporting clinical trials

Media hype about wonder drugs for treating cancer, preventing heart attacks or stopping Alzheimer’s mean there is more scrutiny than ever before on clinical trials. Groundbreaking treatments often come with risks. As such, there is a benefit in being able to track the performance of new medication in real time using IoT. The most obvious is that it enables rapid detection of adverse reactions, reducing the risk to those participating in the trial.

Danish consultancy NNIT has developed a ‘plug and play service’ called the Clinical Study Accelerator which streams, processes and aggregates study data from devices in a compliant way. Over and above the issue of patient safety, this form of real-time tracking can have cost/ROI/logistical benefits. It can, for example, facilitate larger sample sizes and mean trial spans can be shorter (currently trials can take 10-15 years or more to be completed). IoT’s ability to ease the burden of creating new medicines is especially welcome when considering it costs an estimated $2.6 billion to develop a new drug.

4. Monitoring the manufacturing process

IoT allows pharma companies to improve operational oversight of the drug manufacturing process. As a result, it can improve efficiency and prevent costly mistakes. At a basic level, introducing IoT sensors into drug storage facilities can raise the alarm if something goes wrong with the environment – such as variations in humidity, light or radiation levels, which can damage medications. For example, Dutch tech company AntTail creates sensors that monitor the ambient temperature drugs are stored at. In terms of the manufacturing process itself, effective use of IoT-generated data can also identify equipment that is underused. As a corollary of this, it becomes possible to predict and pre-empt malfunctions – thus reducing costs.

IoT has the potential to completely transform pharma ecosystems when it is coupled with AI/machine learning. Amgen, for example, has built an AI tool that can identify patterns of glitches and prevent their recurrence. Amgen’s solution can trawl through large data sets and flag issues that legacy systems may have missed.

5. Sharpening supply chain visibility

Across the globe, pharmaceutical developers and manufacturers are seeing the impact of IoT on their supply chains in terms of improved efficiency, fewer errors, faster time to market and less wastage. IoT has a role to play at every stage of the supply chain – starting with procurement. For example, the right tech can facilitate the process of weighing and testing the quality of raw materials in the plant. Later in the process, drugs are vulnerable in transit or when stored at third-party locations (such as pharmacies or warehouses). IoT devices, including connected fridges, allow real-time data to provide security and condition reports every step of the way. The upside is that fewer batches of damaged drugs are likely to be discarded. In addition to monitoring the condition of drugs on the move, IoT sensors can also inform transport logistics, thus reducing delays and lost batches.

Our experience with pharma clients has identified several key mistakes associated with the implementation of IoT, ranging from lack of strategic focus through to a failure to maintain a patient-centric vision. However, the biggest error healthcare companies could make right now is not to embrace the opportunities presented by IoT. With research predicting that the global IoT healthcare market will reach over $322 billion in value by 2025 (CAGR of 29.9%), hospitals, clinics, pharma manufacturers, retailers, care homes and clinical research organisations all need to be gearing up for a connected future.

James Steiner is design director at strategic design consultancy Method