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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.

Pharmaceutical giant Merck is bringing patient care into the age of smartphones. The company has launched a series of mobile applications to help users manage ailments ranging from cancer to diabetes to migraines. These free, unbranded applications--including iChemoDiary, iManage Migraine, and Vree, which is for people with Type II diabetes--are designed to help patients and caregivers track symptoms, implement treatment plans, and get access to important health information. The apps are available on a variety of mobile platforms, including Android, Apple iPhone, BlackBerry, and Windows Mobile. The company says it has had hundreds of thousands of downloads.

"We felt technology could play a huge role in streamlining healthcare and helping educate consumers around health and wellness," says J. Chris Scalet, Merck's CIO and executive VP of global services. The company commissioned a group within the IT organization, called Technology Innovation for Human Health, to take a forward-looking view of health IT. Working with key people from various Merck business units, the group looked at the challenges in the healthcare industry around education, awareness, and behaviors, Scalet says.

Merck also went right to the source--patients.

"We found that in speaking to patients, they forget information, and it can be difficult to track things in real time," says Steve Hoelper, a project lead in the Technology Innovation for Human Health group. Recognizing the growing popularity of smartphones and mobile devices, the group decided to see if a mobile application could help patients better manage their own care.

The first application developed was Vree. People with type II diabetes and their caregivers can use the application to record essential health information, such as blood glucose levels, which patients measure anywhere from once to five times a day by drawing blood and using a glucometer. Patients can enter reads into the app, compiling a record for when they next visit their doctors. Vree also can help users keep track of their medications and provide information around diet and exercise.

J. Chris Scalet, CIO, Merck
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Technology could play a big role in streamlining healthcare, says Scalet
The group then moved to the iChemoDiary and iManage Migraine applications. The iChemoDiary app helps cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy or radiation track symptoms and side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, and dizziness. The application can create graphs of symptoms over time, providing a sort of personal analytics system. "When you speak with a physician or nurse, you can discuss how you feel, and have data to back it up," Hoelper says.

The iManage Migraine app was requested by Merck's customer advisers. According to Merck, migraine sufferers are generally female between the ages of 18 and 49 years--also an ideal demographic of smartphone users. As with the other apps, iManage Migraine helps patients track symptoms so that they can provide more-detailed information to their physicians.

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