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InformationWeek 500: Your Health? Merck Has An App For That

The pharma giant is banking on the ubiquity of smartphones to empower patients.

Health And Wealth

While the three apps target different conditions, they have the same goal: to improve patient outcomes. Treatments for these ailments can be complex and may have to be carried out over long periods of time, so it's essential that patients stay on top of their health. "One big challenge doctors have is keeping patients on therapy: taking medicine, doing exercise, monitoring diets," Scalet says. "We think this is a great opportunity to make that happen."

The company is looking at providing these applications in languages other than English. "Diabetes is worldwide," says Jim Swanson, Merck's VP of IT and a project leader for the mobile applications. "Take China--unless you're in a city with a high level of healthcare, it's difficult for patients to get educated. But you can give someone a cell phone, and content can be easily distributed."

A mobile application takes about three months to develop, according to Merck. The effort involves multiple groups within the company, including a usability lab, the marketing department, business analysts, software developers, and of course the legal department. Privacy of patient data is paramount, so the apps encrypt data stored on the mobile device using 128-bit asymmetric encryption. "The consumer retains control," Swanson says. "It's their information, and they decide how to share it."

At present, the mobile apps don't have the ability to connect to other applications, such as a physician's or hospital's electronic medical records system. Over the long term, however, Merck expects such capabilities could be introduced. "That's where the industry is going and where value is going to be generated," Hoelper says. At present, however, the regulatory and technological framework simply doesn't exist. "Until health information exchanges emerge, we can't connect to data stores in a cost-effective way," he says. "The plumbing needs to be laid first."

Meantime, the company is moving forward with other mobile apps. It's providing real-time access to medical reference materials like MerckMedicus and the Merck Manual Home and Professional editions, making them available to physicians via mobile devices, such as iPhones and BlackBerrys. The company says the MerckMedicus app was downloaded 4,500 times in the first two months it was available.

While the disease-related apps are unbranded, the company also is experimenting with mobile apps that blend health information with not-so-subtle pitches for Merck products. Case in point is the Coppertone MyUV Alert, a mobile application released this summer that lets users check the local UV index and offers sun care tips, including reminders to apply sun block. The application can also send Coppertone coupons to customers. According to Merck, the MyUV Alert was downloaded more than 20,000 times in the first two weeks of its release.

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