Health Tech

Matthew’s health care tidbits: The drug model for DTx was wrong

Each time I send out the THCB Reader, our newsletter that summarizes the best of THCB (Sign up here!) I include a brief tidbits section. Then I had the brainwave to add them to the blog. They’re short and usually not too sweet! –Matthew Holt

If you were to look at pharmaceuticals in the US you might make three observations. 1) They are the most important way health conditions are helped, cured or eradicated. 2) The way they are delivered to patients (via pharmacies) is very badly integrated with the health care delivery system. 3) They are way too expensive.

OK, so those are my observations not yours but I think you’ll agree they’re all true.

Now I am going to tell you that we’ve developed a technology that lives in your phone that has the same impact as a drug, if not better. It will cure your depression, insomnia, pain, even maybe Alzheimer’s. And because it is a software product, not a drug you ingest, it has no (or at least few) dangerous side effects. And because it’s software and easy to distribute to millions of people, it can be cheap. Wouldn’t it be a great idea for the people managing health conditions—a patient’s clinical care team—to directly integrate this technology into the care they are delivering?

Some of the people building these technologies agreed, but most of them decided that they liked the current model of prescription pharmaceuticals. They built these cool technologies and decided to distribute them via physician prescriptions and charge for them like pharmaceuticals. To do that, they had to get FDA approval for their “Prescription Digital Therapeutics” (DTx) via expensive clinical trials. Additionally, of course, they hoped to get government-backed monopoly status–called patents in the pharma business.

In general in health care, the FDA regulates things that go into the body and may cause damage. The rest of clinical medicine has great latitude for experimentation, technique and technology development, and allows others to copy what works.

The companies heading down the Prescription DTx route also used the business model of regular pharma and biotech companies. They raised large amounts of money up front, applied for patents, went through the FDA clinical trial process, and hoped to charge significant amounts per patient once their DTx were approved and prescribed.

None of them seemed to care that if they succeeded, their DTx would necessarily only be accessed by a small population at great cost. None of them seemed to notice that their DTx were usually an electronic distillment of teaching, patient advice, coaching therapy or other activities that look more like extensions of traditional clinical care, as opposed to ingested pharmaceuticals.

Many of these companies are now in deep trouble. They raised money when it was cheap or even, like Pear and Better Therapeutics, took advantage of the SPAC vehicles to IPO. Now they have found that they cant get their DTx through the FDA process quickly enough or aren’t seeing the prescribing numbers they needed to make their products a success. Since the digital health stock crash, it’s very hard for them to raise more money. Pear Tx this week announced it was trying to sell itself.

My hope is that we get a reset. I want digital therapies that are extensions of clinical care to be widely used and widely available as part of the care process, and for their care to be integrated into clinical care –rather than to be prescribed and then delivered by some third-party. And, because they are software and because software scales, I want them to be cheap. Hopefully that is the future of DTx.

On second thoughts, that wouldn’t be a bad future for regular pharmaceuticals either!

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