Seeking the Holy Grail of Digital Health

One of Center City’s big employers of smart young people is scaling up to earn a key share of the investment dollars financing new smartphone-app- and sensor-data-based medicine and other new ways of linking doctors, patients, manufacturers, and the people paying for it all.

Publicis Groupe, the France-based public-relations and marketing giant, has boosted employment at its Digitas Health LifeBrands and Razorfish agencies in Philadelphia to 450, up from 380 in 2011 and “the most we’ve ever been,” says Brendan Gallagher, executive vice president for connected health innovation at Digitas Health LifeBrands.

Venture-capital money is pouring into “this space we call digital health,” says Alexandra von Plato, Philadelphia-based group president of Publicis’ health group, which also has offices in New York, San Francisco, and London.

She was back in her high-ceilinged headquarters atop the Wanamaker Building last week, after running the firm’s fourth yearly mDOT conference of digital health developers and investors, held this year at Google headquarters in Silicon Valley.

“I went to Temple, I’m proud that we can have a scaled [growing] practice in Philadelphia, at the intersection of marketing and media and health, in an emerging and vital industry, and be a significant employer of young people – we have a lot of people under 30,” she says.

Even before the Food and Drug Administration last year clarified rules on which medical apps needed government approval, there was an “explosion” of patient-data-focused smartphone and sensor-based apps – but only a few dozen, of tens of thousands, have so far attracted significant users, von Plato says.

“The app is the tip of the spear,” Gallagher says. The goal is the “virtual doctor visit,” the cheaper, long-distance, data and treatment alternatives-at-your- fingertips vision pioneered by firms such as Teladoc and Doctor on Demand.

“Not a lot of our clients have been creating content and services that meet that reality,” he acknowledges. “There’s going to be a need for brands to engage with patients, doctors, and caregivers, remotely. It’s not the old days of reps walking into a doctor’s office and giving them pamphlets. In a lot of cases, the physicians won’t be meeting with patients at all anymore.”

Isn’t this just a way of sugarcoating a growing physical distance between busy doctors and isolated patients?

“We worry about disintermediation. But it isn’t turning out to be that,” says Gallagher. “The patient does really feel that they are getting undivided attention. The doctor can follow up in a written way that feels more substantial and doesn’t feel so strange. Young doctors are less awkward in this format. There are people who grew up on Skype.”

Is this bad news for big hospitals and other established institutions with massive overhead costs?

“The analogy,” Gallagher says, “is the music industry: [Sales are] half what it was 10 years ago. But everybody now has access whenever they want it to the best music. This is like that: The patient wins.”

This story was originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer