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Article: Pharma Mobile Apps

Adotas: August 26, 2011

Pharma Mobile Apps: An Rx for Boosting Success

Making pharma’s hearty appetite for cool apps pay off.

By Michael Maher

Pharmaceutical marketers today are rushing to build mobile apps at a record pace.  Since apps are relatively new for pharma, too often they’re merely the shiny, new toy every brand wants.  However, a disciplined strategic approach can quickly boost the likelihood of success.

App development across all industries has skyrocketed.  Since the Apple Store launched in mid-2008, 10 billion apps have been downloaded, over 7 billion in the last year.  There are now some 400,000 apps available for Apple devices. 

Only 10,000 are medical apps, but pharma has also been riding the app wave.  Ernst and Young reports that drug companies spent 78% more last year launching projects that use technology to improve patient health.  Half were mobile health apps, compared with just 16% previously. 

Why are mobile apps right for pharma?  Apps have many compelling benefits, including accessible content without an internet connection, uniquely rich experiences from integrating mobile device functionality, etc.  However, app success will remain elusive unless brands leverage knowledge of mobile behavior and best practices, starting with the following:

1)      Pre-App: Mobile-friendly sites  

Far more of a brand’s audience will visit the website via a mobile browser than ever use an app.  Sadly, a 2011 Mediapost audit showed just 19% of pharma sites are mobile-optimized, and Google estimates only slightly higher at 21%.  (Note: Acuity Group reported in 2010 that 88% of top retailer websites are not mobile-friendly, so it’s not just a pharma problem.)

Before considering an app, first optimize brand and disease sites for mobile, ensuring the most valuable content is fully accessible.  Only after core information, content, and functionality are mobile-friendly is it time to think about apps.

2)      HCPs before consumers

Physician apps should usually take priority over consumers, since HCP mobile adoption is accelerating much more rapidly.  Manhattan Research reports HCP smart phone penetration at 81%, and half of those use a medical app professionally.  iPad ownership among physicians is already 30%, and 38% more plan to purchase by Q4, 2011. 

HCP app strategies ought to prioritize mobile-engaged specialties, such as Physician Assistants and ER docs, who have the highest mobile use at 40% (Source: Bulletin Healthcare), vs. Oncologists and Clinical Pathologists, where only 20% and 16%, respectively, use mobile.

Yet, 75% of new Apple medical apps are for patients, who don’t seem overly interested.  MobiHealth News reports only 9% of consumers with smartphones ever downloaded an app for managing health.  Such low adoption requires that patient health apps focus on segments likely to be receptive, like the 86% of mobile consumers aged 35-44 using apps.  

3)      Seize Best App-ortunities

Mobile app possibilities may seem limitless, but many are clear.  Half of physician smartphone users already utilize drug reference apps, and one-third conduct mobile CME.  PwC reports 57% of HCPs want mobile to monitor patients remotely, supported by 31% of consumers who would allow apps to track personal health.  Physician iPad ownership expands the possibilities, as 40% of HCPs planning to buy are interested in showing images, video, or other info to patients, 40% for writing clinical notes, and 30% for remote patient monitoring. 

Pharma apps already meet some of these needs.  Merck’s Vree for Diabetes helps type 2 diabetes patients track blood sugar, medications, nutrition intake and activity levels, while Sanofi’s AFib Educator helps HCPs explain the disease to patients.  Others innovate in new areas, like GSK/ MedTrust’s Cancertrials App, which helps HCPs locate clinical trials for experimental therapies.   (Note: app extensions of currently-regulated medical devices are subject to FDA review.)

4)      Promote new apps heavily

With apps, it’s not true that “if you build it, they will come.”  In the Apple Store’s early days, most were discovered quickly, without significant promotion.  Today, with over 400,000 available, new apps can easily go unnoticed.  Of the 10,000 medical apps (far fewer for pharma), most are not ranked, keeping download numbers low.

Without promotion, apps are typically discovered more randomly from App Store browsing, or family/friend recommendations.  The most effective promotion engages influential bloggers or app rating sources, which spur higher rankings and download volumes.  Prospect and customer outreach also drives app launch success, along with incentives to tell friends.  Apps with broad appeal may employ search marketing and online advertising, but these are costly.  

5)      Combat “App Apathy”

Downloads do not indicate success, for users lose interest in most apps quickly.  According to Pinch Media, only 20% of consumers use free apps more than one day after downloading and only 5% use 30 days later.  ComScore indicated 1/3 of American consumers have apps on their phones, but only 2/3 of them ever use.  One survey indicated only a small portion of patients will use a compliance app 10 days after downloading. 

Marketers must stimulate repeat usage to ensure an app’s value is fully experienced.  Although physician app re-use is much higher than patients’, driving repeat interaction is critical for all.  Common tactics include app messaging, app improvement alerts, feedback requests, or promotions where winning correlates with higher usage.


Pharma apps offer substantial opportunities as mobile adoption accelerates, but brands should avoid jumping blindly into this new frontier.  Better aligning app strategies with mobile behavior and best practices is certain to enhance pharma app results.

Michael Maher is SVP, Marketing at Digitas Health.