Every cloud has a silver lining. Coronavirus will be the same. One of its silver linings may be faster uptake of digital health tools and gadgets, as individuals are compelled to remain at home amid one of the century’s most concerning pandemics.
The merits of digital health products – from online doctors’ appointments, to wearable heart rate monitors and life-style support apps – were apparent before COVID-19 swept the globe. Health systems were already over-burdened, with many patients, especially those with chronic conditions like diabetes, unable or unwilling to make regular physician visits.
Now, however, all of us are being forced to change our ways and conduct even more of our lives online. This change of mind-set may be the catalyst that’s needed to support wider adoption of virtual clinics such as those offered to diabetes patients by the likes of Onduo (backed by Verily/Google) or Livongo. These app-based products connect to glucose monitors and provide coaching and online doctors’ visits. (Livongo in January 2020 tied up with continuous glucose monitoring company Dexcom, offering data-synching across the platforms.)
Most of these tools, though clever, have struggled to overcome the core challenge in helping people effectively manage their diabetes. Patients don’t want the disease to encumber their daily lives. Sure, they want help and they want convenience, but they don’t want to be lectured or coached every day, nor do they want constant reminders of their condition. They are after quick, simple-to-use, non-invasive solutions that are discreet, that provide the data they need when they need it, and which are otherwise silent.
That is a tricky balance to get right. Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson said as much when he pulled out most of the French pharma’s investment in Onduo in December 2019, saying it was a waste of money. The e-commerce component of diabetes “is a much harder nut to crack” than expected, he said – not least as the margins on digital health products are nothing like those achieved by novel therapeutics. (And in diabetes, with insulin commoditized and GLP-1 agonists the main growth area, finding novel therapeutics isn’t easy either: days before it retreated from the Onduo venture, Sanofi had announced it was stopping all R&D in metabolic and cardiovascular disease, to focus instead on rare diseases and oncology.)
Maybe coronavirus – and the awareness it brings – will help crack that nut. It may compel more people to consider more proactive online disease management, and to better appreciate the value of such virtual monitoring. The virus has already provided a global wake-up call for the importance of coordinated diagnostic testing.
If coronavirus provides a boon to some consumer-facing diabetes management products, though, its impact on other serious chronic diseases could be much darker. Rates of obesity and heart disease may increase as people are forced to stay at home and order take-out. Anxiety and depression may spread further, due to social isolation and fear.
Hopefully, the virus will endure only long enough to instil healthy, sensible habits, a stronger sense of community look-out, and an appreciation of the virtues of digital health products – and not long enough to provoke a spike in other conditions.