UPDATED: Mobile apps could rival pharma's crown jewels

As we pack more data about our health into mobile devices, pharma companies could face a new competitive threat to their drugs: Mobile health apps. Forbes contributor Dave Chase notes that anecdotal evidence indicates that mobile apps could provide greater benefits for some patients with certain diseases than some drugs, which could lead doctors to prescribe the digital remedies to their patients once the apps showed greater benefits than traditional meds.

The threat looms closer than one might think. Happtique, a mobile health outfit, has launched a trial to test the use of its pioneering "mRx" program that enables physicians to pick health apps for patients with a range of chronic conditions. The upshot, as Chase notes, is that health apps could gain greater legitimacy as proven treatment options with hard data from such studies, and pharma companies would then have yet another competitive threat to their aging business models and drugs for the same ailments.

It's an open question whether pharma groups should get into the mobile health business. Drugmakers have already been making subtle tweaks to their business models to survive an onslaught of patent expirations on key drugs and the hurt from cost-conscious healthcare payers. Yet one could argue that Big Pharma groups aren't built to traffic in digital assets and therefore have no business playing in the mobile health game.

Chase seems open to pharma companies thinking outside the traditional confines of their business models. And he notes that newspaper executives who failed to embrace the digital revolution in media suffered for it, and companies like Microsoft ($MSFT) have found way to compete in new markets such as video game consoles and online travel. Whether pharma companies like it or not, doctors and healthcare systems are keen on finding better and cheaper ways to treat patients with conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

"Mobile app prescribing will add an entirely new dimension to my ability to care for patients," said Dr. Steven Magid of New York-based Hospital for Special Surgery, as quoted in Chase's piece. "The use of Happtique's mRx will ultimately improve patients' health."

At this point, drugmakers appear to be treading softly in the mobile health arena. As Forbes reported Tuesday, Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) has sponsored health tech event because of its interest in social media, medication adherence and the role of big data in healthcare. The health IT article notes that London-based drug giant GlaxoSmithKline recently released a free asthma-management app and Novartis has sponsored a contest to encourage development of such technology.

- read Chase's article
- check out the Forbes health IT report

Editor's note: Updated with additional information from a separate Forbes article published Tuesday morning.