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Watch and learn: Why pharmacy needs to fit with today’s gadget-equipped, data-empowered consumers

On September 14, 2021, Apple threw off the covers on the latest version of its smart watch. It was a launch that had all the marketing gloss we have come to expect from Apple - super-slick imagery and a series of smartly worded slogans.

Among them was the statement that the Apple Watch Series 7 incorporates a series of “indispensable” tools for health and wellness, which include an electrical heart sensor and electrocardiogram (ECG) app as well as a blood oxygen sensor.

Whether you see these features as indispensable or not, it is nevertheless notable that such technologies are now being integrated into the devices we wear upon our wrists every day. After all, it was only a few decades ago that the best a smart watch had to offer was the functionality of a calculator or the chance to play a spot of Tetris.

Apple’s interest in the space between device hardware and personal healthcare clearly goes more than skin deep. It has consistently pushed the medical credentials of its watch, having achieved approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its ECG functionality. It might not have achieved the same thing for blood-oxygen sensing but a competitive device – the ScanWatch from Withings – recently was given the green light by the FDA in both these areas, showing the broader momentum across the sector.

Given the evidence base required for FDA approval, it’s clear that wearables are looking to graduate from the level of consumer to ‘prosumer’. And it is not difficult to imagine that, over time, the lines between smart watches and medical-monitoring devices will become even more blurred.

This feeds in to a broader ‘democratization’ of healthcare, where patients are increasingly expecting to have greater ownership and control of their own health data and treatments, aided by newer and/or cheaper technologies. This ‘pull’ from patients is complemented by the ‘push’ of market forces – an example being insurance provider Vitality providing owners of its health plans or life insurance policies with an Apple Watch at a discounted price to actively encourage healthy living.

Research carried out by consultancy Deloitte in the US found that a growing number of consumers are using technology to monitor their health and measure fitness. At the same time, it found that consumers are increasingly willing to tell their doctors when they disagree with them, basing their arguments on the information they are accessing via digital tools and searches. For pharmacists and other healthcare professionals, a symptom of this trend is Dr Google, the unregulated, unqualified and often unhelpful presence who lurks in the background of a growing number of consultations.

But while such input can be unwelcome, it has become an inescapable fixture of the modern healthcare landscape. And, what’s more, its presence is only likely to be felt more strongly as patients increase their sense of agency and accumulate more data and insight to inform the management of their own health.

The growth of internet pharmacy is an extension of this trend. Much of the negativity surrounding such services is focused on the providers, including the possible imminent addition of Amazon, but it is important to remember that patients are not being forced into using their services. In growing numbers, they are making the decision to take control of their medicine supply, all in the name of convenience.

Of course, the real currency at play here is data. Patients might once have accepted that their own healthcare details were out of reach, but they are now looking to wrestle back a degree of control and ownership, and it is the service providers who act as enablers and facilitators who will be welcomed along on their journey.

For pharmacies, sharing in these data spoils provides access to a wealth of information that can be interrogated, analysed and employed for mutual benefit. Just as a publisher would be able to use Google Analytics to identify particular topics of interest for their website audience, pharmacies can look across their patient data and identify hot spots of need and demand in areas such as diabetes or cardiovascular health. Services can then be aligned accordingly, whether that’s through launching a healthy heart clinic or advisory services for those at risk of diabetes.

At its core, however, a modern, patient-centric pharmacy must deliver the reliable, trusted and convenient supply of medicines in a way that satisfies demanding 21st century patients. The ability to collect prescriptions 24/7 using technology such as the Pharmaself24 plays into these expectations while also generating further data on how and why patients are using the service and engaging with your pharmacy.

After all, if patients are becoming empowered by information gleaned from the watch on their wrist, then pharmacies must move in the same direction, and become empowered by all the information that’s now available at their fingertips.

This article first appeared in Pharmacy Business magazine.

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