It’s now or never.

Indian pharma has watched from the sidelines as e-pharmacies like 1mg and Medlife have swooped in, tossed distribution channels out, and increasingly become the direct link between pharma companies and patients. They hold patient data and monetise for behaviour; which, in pharma terms, is a bit of a superpower.

It’s now or never because if Indian pharma can’t fix this, it loses its connection with the one thing that matters—the patient.

The only way out of this tricky situation for pharma companies is to beat e-pharmacies at their own game. Enter digital therapy.

Digital therapy is a kind of software, typically a mobile app, used by the patient to complement the treatment of the disease. For instance, the application nudges patients of chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes to exercise and eat right. It is technology that aids pharma companies in improving clinical outcomes, their compliance with the drug regime, and their understanding of patients’ behaviour, as in the case of Welldoc and Omada Health, internationally.

Now, in a first for India, drug manufacturer Cipla has bought a stake in a digital therapy company, Wellthy Therapeutics. And in a first for the world, one can finally draw a comparison between a pharma company and a fast-food chain—for McDonald’s, too, has invested in machine learning to feed their customers’ needs better. Both mark a shift towards the focused use of a new generation of digital tools, with big companies across sectors realising their significance.

This partnership between India’s largest (in terms of sales) drug manufacturer and a three-year-old startup attempts to combine drug therapies for diabetes and cardiovascular disease with digital therapies that manage these diseases via a mobile application.

Nifty? Yes. But also a sign of things to come.

Cipla, which earned a revenue of Rs 15,219 crore ($2.2 billion) in the year ended March 2018, the highest among all Indian pharma companies, isn’t the only pharma company adopting digital therapy in the near future. Because why else would it bet on a startup that earned a meagre revenue of Rs 12 lakh ($17,000) after burning Rs 3.8 crore ($546,000) in the same year its own revenues soared over the $2 billion mark? And bet Rs 10.5 crore ($1.5 million) on an 11.71% stake at that.

Cipla’s investment is built on the hope for a digital treatment for Indian pharma. One through which digital therapies manage diseases by pushing patients to stay healthy—exercise, eat right and do whatever the physician says, specifically, never missing a dose of the prescribed medicine.

In fact, this sort of therapy could be key to arresting the widespread growth of certain diseases. Lifestyle diseases, for one, cannot be cured with pills alone.

AUTHOR

Ruhi Kandhari

Ruhi writes on the impact of healthcare policies, trends in the healthcare sector and developments on the implementation of Electronic Health Records in India. She has an M. Sc. in Development Studies from the London School of Economics.

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