“DTx that is highly engaging and clinically proven can greatly improve the quality of a person’s life.”

by Artur Olesch

In a conversation with Susanne Gruber, Global Healthcare Leader and VP of Pharma Partnership at Sidekick Health, Artur Olesch explores the visions of people committed to developing digital therapeutics (DTx). 

Despite progress in medical sciences and modern health systems, people living with chronic illnesses still struggle with managing their condition. Chronic disease is more than “not being healthy”. It impacts quality of life, influences family members, and affects work, among other challenges. Only the people living with the illness themselves, who can often feel powerless, can understand this very personal burden.

“Many people underestimate both the impact of the disease on their quality of life and their lifestyle on their disease. They don’t know enough about the condition, and don’t know what to do. I want to change that,” says Susanne. We discuss her path from IT to healthcare, enriching the pharma business model with digital health solutions, and what must be done to improve care and prevention.

You are a computer scientist by education. What have you learned as an engineer who is now motivated to push digital transformation forward?

When I was first introduced to computing during an apprenticeship at IBM, I was inspired by the reliable logic of technology. Already during my studies, I knew that I was interested in technology that makes people’s lives easier. Even early in my career, I was excited about how quickly the technology system can “learn” and use the information it acquires in a way that compliments human research and learning.

The ability of technology to both process information and make quick calculations was already, at that time, the foundation of digital transformation in other industries. So I asked myself: if there is so much potential in using technology and artificial intelligence, why shouldn’t we use technology and AI to improve the health of humanity? This belief fired up my confidence and a passion for helping to drive digital transformation in healthcare.

From a career in tech, you then switched to the pharma business and then to a DTx company. Tell us about that journey!

Looking back now, I see my career pathway as a natural route towards something I have always wanted to do: using the power of digitalization to help patients. I was lucky to find Sidekick, where I knew I could make a real impact with my expertise and personal mission.

Sidekick’s solution also has a philosophy that matches my values, as well as three elementary pillars of the DTx: the generation of robust clinical evidence, the holistic approach towards multiple chronic diseases, and the use of gamification to help users develop healthy habits.

It’s interesting how you’ve adapted to technological evolution to make the best of your capabilities. Let me ask you about the connection between tech and pharma. The modern era of the pharmaceutical industry began in the 19th century. Since then, pharma companies have been developing chemical molecules to treat various diseases. Digital therapeutics, in turn, harnesses the power of behavior change. How can DTx and pharma find a common language to improve care and prevention, especially for patients with chronic diseases?

We don’t believe that DTx are here to replace drugs; rather that they are here to complement the treatments available to people living with chronic illnesses. There is considerable potential for synergies between DTx and Rx. While drugs aim to treat a condition that has already been diagnosed, DTx are designed in part to prevent that condition, or its progression, through lifestyle intervention. In other words, DTx solutions can be introduced at an early stage, empowering people to take an active role in managing their health even while they are still healthy.

Your approach reminds me of the 4P rule whereby healthcare will become personalized, preventive, participatory, and predictive. What valuable know-how have you brought from the pharma industry to Sidekick? 

I have learned to start thinking about a solution by asking “WHY.” Why is a solution or a product relevant to patients, healthcare professionals, providers, or payers? The challenge for digital health solutions is not the technology itself, but to find a sustainable business model. I aim to support Sidekick in deepening its knowledge of the business value of DTx for pharma, and how to commercialize the opportunities that become available. 

Just as important are good partnerships. How does Sidekick create a link between the novel field of DTx, the pharma industry, patients, and healthcare in general?

Sidekick has the potential to be a connector between the different stakeholders. Together with our partners, we want to co-develop Rx/DTx solutions and explore new and different go-to-market models. As a DTx company, we can take the lead in areas where pharma companies are regulated or tend to steer away from, like direct-to-patient channels.

And where do you still see the space for collaboration between DTx companies and pharma to improve care and prevention, especially regarding patients with chronic diseases?

Healthcare is evolving from reactive to preventive care, as healthcare costs are rising heavily. To prevent a chronic condition from further deteriorating or a severe event from occurring, you need to understand the individual patient’s condition and support the patient in real-time. 

A DTx solution has the possibility of providing a more holistic view of a patient’s condition. The data generated not only allows a healthcare provider to optimize patient management, but it also provides pharma companies with better insights into their patient profiles and behavior. This determines pharma’s ability to provide more targeted treatment solutions. 

We should also remember that many patients with chronic diseases have comorbidities. As a result, they would typically take multiple medications and potentially have access to multiple DTx. That is why DTx and Rx should not be seen as competitor, siloed solutions, but as complementary treatments to best support a patient. Additionally, a DTx is often able to cover multiple diseases and – as a result – provide better value to a patient.

One of the challenges of DTx is to engage patients. What is critical to creating a platform or an app that addresses different personal drivers of behavioral change?

A well-designed platform that allows generating an individual digital fingerprint can support personal needs. People are much more motivated to stay engaged with a DTx if they get specific content or a service precisely at the time when they need it. This can be achieved by implementing new technologies like machine learning and AI, biofeedback, or real-life measurement of progress.

An app or platform should be like a friend who always has the evidence-based answer, provides clear guidelines, understands patients, and uses this understanding to improve outcomes and quality of life.

We also know that changing behavior and developing healthy habits is easier said than done.

Indeed. Behavioral science has shown that individual decision-making is highly linked to emotions and beliefs. Therefore, an app that aims to create sustainable behavior change needs to provide a positive emotional experience. An app that targets the brain by delivering motivational stimuli relating to core beliefs can influence individual behavior and decision-making. Over time, every user builds a personal digital footprint that allows the DTx to provide more personalized nudges, leading to personalized engagement. 

It is repeatedly said that the success of startups depends on the right people. What elements do you think are the fundamental strength of the Sidekick team?

I am very impressed by the diversity of our team members – different expertise and diverse personalities – but all complementary, united, and dedicated to a joint mission. 

We share a similar mindset and a strong belief in what Sidekick stands for. The appetite to positively disrupt healthcare is strong and this drives the creativity and energy to pioneer DTx in multi-chronic patients. Finally, I believe that this attitude, together with high agility, is needed to be a DTx leader.