Among the examples of innovation in pharmaceutical company engagement I have profiled over the years, some of the most effective digital initiatives have been collaborations and partnerships between pharmaceutical companies and external stakeholders. Digital media collaborations provide opportunities for companies and organisations to play to their strengths – a patient group with access to communities of patients may be supported with knowledge, content or training by a pharmaceutical company that struggles to engage patients directly online.

So I was interested to hear this month of what Boehringer Ingelheim described as a new “five-year research and health care innovation collaboration” with not-for-profit health system Sutter Health, focused on digital health solutions, mobile technologies, and advanced data analytics.

Innovation with practical outcomes?

Boehringer Ingelheim has long been a pioneer in digital innovation, even in some cases where the primary goal seems to have been simply to learn from digital behaviours. So this collaboration (whilst not strictly focused on social media) is exciting because the company has the opportunity to build on its innovation heritage in an initiative that promises a purpose beyond experimentation alone. Certainly it appears that learning is still at the heart of the collaboration’s goals, but so are practical outcomes. According to Boehringer Ingelheim the collaboration with Sutter Health aims to develop a “tablet or kiosk-based data collection system to collect information directly from patients during every health encounter”; to make it “easier for healthcare professionals and patients to communicate about treatment options by developing technological means for integrating clinical and patient reported data in an engaging visual display”; and to “empower shared decision making through the use of visual displays and other technologies that help connect patients and healthcare professionals and create more personal care”.

In other words, the initiative will collect data from patients, combine that data with clinical data, and use this to help patients and their doctors to make informed decisions about care.

It’s an opportunity to prove the value of combining mobile digital technology with data analytics, to deliver better healthcare.

The first initiative will focus on COPD patients and according to Boehringer Ingelheim and Sutter Health, the collaboration will take place between specialist doctors, patients, and the two organisations. “We will work with our pulmonologists, patients and Boehringer Ingelheim to design, develop, and test the most promising ideas”, says Sutter Health’s Joshua Liberman, director of Research, Development, and Dissemination.

Better for doctors and patients

Chris Wahlers, Associate Director Public Relations with Boehringer Ingelheim told me that the collaboration is simply another step in a long-standing relationship between Boehringer Ingelheim and the COPD community. In a world of increasingly personalised medical care, he says that the initiative will support better working together between doctors and patients. “Through this project in COPD, Boehringer Ingelheim and Sutter Health hope to make it easier for doctors and patients to work together to personalize medical care to the patient’s unique needs and preferences”.

The collaboration should also allow more time for doctors and patients to partner together, according to Sutter Health’s chief research officer, Walter “Buzz” Stewart: “We believe that innovative technologies can help us develop a deeper understanding of patient needs, values, and care preferences—and create more time during office visits for doctors and patients to partner toward improved health outcomes.”

Collaboration is key to innovative results

Wahlers says that working with Sutter Health as a collaborator is an important part of Boehringer Ingelheim’s search for innovation. “In our constant quest for innovation, we understand that discovery doesn’t happen in isolation, and that often collaboration is key to development of innovative results. These are the results of teamwork”, he told me. “Boehringer Ingelheim saw an ideal collaborator in Sutter Health, a not-for-profit health system in Northern California, which, among other qualities, offers extensive research experience, a robust network of hospitals and healthcare providers and access to large, diverse patient populations, as well as expertise in real world evidence development and in the development of joint care interventions.”

Ruchin Kansal, executive director and head, Business Innovation at Boehringer Ingelheim, suggests that new resources for patients could be informed by the initiative. “By joining forces with Sutter Health, we hope this collaboration will provide new insights into unmet needs in care delivery and inform development of new resources for patients.”

The five-year collaboration represents a long-term commitment between Boehringer Ingelheim and Sutter Health, in a digital age where ideas come and go fast, and the relationship between doctors and patients is being transformed. Whilst Boehringer Ingelheim has a commercial interest in the treatment of COPD, it seems possible that the model being explored by this collaboration could transform the doctor-patient relationship well beyond the two organizations and the COPD community. I look forward to seeing the results.


This article was first published in pharmaphorum.