Focus on the Fundamentals not the Tools

"It’s not the technology that entertains people; it’s what you do with the technology" - John Lasseter, Pixar.



Pixar is known as a Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) company but their success lies in telling great stories not in their technology. Lasseter explained this in a recent article here. At the time of their breakthrough with Toy Story there were other CGI companies that were technically competent and capable of delivering interesting effects but the film industry was unmoved. The incumbents couldn’t find a good use because they weren’t comfortable with the technology while new players struggled to convince as they focused on their technology. Sound familiar to anyone?  It was when Pixar focused on a great story that the first successful film using CGI was made.

In the recent past, pharma companies may have found themselves intimidated by disruptive technologies. Everywhere they looked there was a cool new gadget or solution while they were just thinking about creating their first app. Pharma didn’t know whether to rush headlong in or wait on the sidelines. Some thought “lots of others are doing this already, I’m too late to the game” while others preferred to sit back, “Let’s wait for others to make mistakes that we can learn from”.  Eventually, however, they realized that a lot of the things they found in Google searches didn’t actually exist, weren’t available or just didn’t work very well, if at all. A few too many were also playing the waiting game so there wasn’t that much to learn from.

Pharma should be first asking ”What are the unmet needs of patients and providers that should be addressed?” NOT “How can we use wearables or mobile technology?

Now as more and more companies are making a concerted push in digital health, we suggest that the first step is to focus on the fundamentals and not the new tools. Pharma should be first asking ”What are the unmet needs of patients and providers that should be addressed?” NOT “How can we use wearables or mobile technology?

When Pharma do this, they will find that they have many strengths that are analogous to Pixar’s storytelling. Pharma has a deep of understanding of:

  • Disease management
  • Patient journeys
  • What influences prescribing
  • Third party reimbursement
  • Regulation & compliance
  • Data generation & analysis

They already leverage this knowledge to optimize the use of medicines with the aims of improving outcomes and making care more efficient.  Applying this knowledge to the application of digital health will be key to finding and delivering the right solutions and not getting captivated by the shiny new tools.

A technical example of this problem we’ve seen is asking whether to develop a regular app or web based app that requires a wifi connection at the early stage of a project. The right question at the start of a project is what problem are we helping the patient solve and how does the patient want to receive that support? Understanding that will make the choice of mobile technology (if mobile is the answer) obvious.

Proteus Digital Health with their Digital Medicines is one of the true stand-alone innovators in the space. Since the early days, they have evolved their view of the company’s own technology, even to the point of changing the company name from its original Proteus Biomedical.  Andrew Thompson, Proteus CEO recalls “The change in company name reflected a maturation in how we viewed our service offering. Initially, we thought potential partners and users would want to track adherence because we had the kit that would allow them to do it. What we learned after many conversations with patients and physicians was that adherence could be an important data set when used together with other physiological and behavioral parameters. We also learned that in order to invite technology into our lives each day, the solution needs to address the most pressing patient and physician needs and demonstrate an outstanding user experience.” Proteus is using this insight in their first commercial product, Proteus Discover, that enables patients to be rapidly assessed and treated to meet their individual outcome goal.

All this is not so say that we shouldn’t be inspired by the opportunity presented by the medium itself to achieve things that we were unable to achieve before. When Pixar was considering the story for their first feature film, they struggled with the fact that CGI technology looked sterile and plastic-y.  This aspect actually became the inspiration.

Everything looks like plastic, so what if the characters were made of plastic? What if they were…toys?”

A recent healthcare example of inspiration by the medium is +wounddesk, a wound care application focused on the doctor and nurse interface.  Recording data electronically often creates a physical barrier between the health care professional and the patient as the focus is on the device and not the patient. +wounddesk, however, found that collecting data on the nurse’s mobile device enabled an improvement in interaction with the patient.  The patient was able to immediately see any changes in their condition and was more active in discussing what actions had made the changes. The new technology was not just a nurse-doctor tool, it also used feedback to inspire a change in nurse-patient communication.

When working on delivering digital health inside pharma, focus on the fundamentals of understanding the patient and provider needs and keep an eye out for unique opportunities inspired by the new technology. Good luck finding your plastic toy moment!


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