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After 5 days of seeing amazing innovations, having discussions about the future of medicine and the practicalities of living on Mars. Plus listening to inspiring speakers from fighter plane-flying physicians to the current President of the USA, it’s not surprising that South by South West (SXSW) leaves you inspired but with your head spinning (and not just from the jet-lag!)

It’s not possible, no matter how hard you try, to see everything on offer during the interactive festival. The sheer volume of sessions, combined with their disparate locations, requires serious planning and endless revisions throughout the day. You find yourself trying to take in as much as you can while your smartphone is nagging you to head across town to the next thing. In the end the result is that you get a flavor of what is happening, a tech zeitgeist. This year it broadly fell into two camps.

The first – the virtual
It was hard to turn a corner in downtown Austin without seeing a virtual reality (VR) headset. From individual sets on start-up booths, to the full-on VR experience of the Samsung Lounge, immersive experiences were the order of the day. Samsung focused on giving you realistic experiences, a rollercoaster ride where the Gear VR headset is combined with headphones and a motion control seat. Luckily my hectic schedule, running from one thing to the next, meant that I hadn’t eaten before I was flung around (virtually and physically), which meant that I had no lunch to lose. Gaming of course is going to be the initial benefactor of VR technologies and having spent a few minutes spinning round on an office chair and blasting aliens I could definitely see the appeal. Making the leap from entertainment to healthcare for VR seems simple and there are already great examples of how this has been used to allow bed-bound patients to experience the outside world. The health-related examples on show on the Med Tech exhibition floor showed less promise – using the technology to add a layer of, frankly unnecessary, VR cool to otherwise lackluster health tracking apps.

The second – the physical
Whilst one vision of a possible future sees us plugged into virtual worlds, our eyes and ears covered with headsets, there was a move to a more physical, tactile future on show in Austin. Inside the pristine white space of the Sony Future Lab the emphasis was on a hands-free (and in some cases screen-free) world. Project N – a tech-necklace (techlace?) that surrounds your head with music but still allows you to hear and experience the outside world was typical of the Sony view that we need to be freed from our screens and headphones and reconnect with the physical world. Their interactive projection table was another example where physical touch on real objects created the interface. More hand waving was in order in the IBM Cognitive lounge where I played Rock, Paper Scissors (and won) against a rather cute robot, then tried to move a BB-8 droid with my mind. All this bodes well for the future of healthcare. Using smart phones is not right for everyone and in some cases not possible. Interacting with technology through voice commands, physical gestures and even thought, opens up a world of possibilities to help patients with a variety of conditions.

So what of the health and med tech tracks?
It is clear that despite a few high-profile apps and devices this is still a nascent industry. In the direct to consumer space there was a proliferation of apps and wearables to track health or provide support programs for patients. It was unsurprising to see Type 2 diabetes being a focus here, not just because of the size of the global market but also that the links to healthy diet and exercise in reducing risk factors, are already clearly established. Adding a human element was the differentiator for YesHealth who had real life coaches integrated into their app-based support program. Mapping your DNA has now moved from being a slow and hugely costly process to something of a commodity thanks to companies like 23andMe. On the other side of the fence, Electronic Health Records (EHRs) were the growth area with several start-ups providing tools and platforms for managing patient data.

The challenge, which formed the basis of some of the panels and much of the discussion I had with various stakeholders during the week, is the connection of health tracking and EHRs. We are at a point when I can measure, monitor and track all manner of health metrics; from steps walked and heart rate to blood sugar levels or my genetic predisposition to certain types of cancer. I can monitor my sleep; track my alpha waves and assess the calories of every meal I eat. I can do this all on my smartphone and with relatively inexpensive wearables, (or tattooables and ingestibles). However, when it comes to passing these data on to a physician there are many hurdles to overcome. Is there a facility to even accept the data which is currently within my phone? Do physicians trust the data I have, what standards are in place to ensure quality. More fundamentally is the entire healthcare industry ready for this apparent shift of power where patients are better equipped with their own health data?

FDA approval of apps or devices takes time and makes it difficult for the developers to make iterative changes (something which is the lifeblood of innovation in the tech sector). Clinical trials to prove efficacy are also slow and costly and not something that investors in tech start-ups are used to paying for. Bridging this gap is the next great challenge for tech and healthcare.

At SXSW you see countless examples of smart people seeing a problem and applying design thinking to create unique solutions. For example, during natural disasters such as an earthquake, telephone and internet networks are disabled. This makes it challenging for aid workers to communicate and coordinate. By combining powerful Wi-Fi routers with drones, one group of innovators had been able to create an ad-hoc Wi-Fi network which could be deployed over any area and provide much-needed connectivity. If SXSW Interactive has a defining theme it is this ‘out of the box’ thinking approach to challenges both large and small. Many of the breakthroughs debuted at the festival over the years have been formed at the nexus of technology and creativity.

If anything, I feel it is this which should be a key learning for pharma. At present there is too much focus on jumping to a solution (‘we need an app or a website’) and then approaching providers to deliver it. This is a rate-limiting step as you can only ask for solutions that you already know about. It also precludes innovation as you are not presenting a challenge and asking for solutions, you are simply asking for variations on the same solution. When we look at the common challenges for pharma today, how do we get information to physicians who have limited time to spare? How do we create content that is engaging? How can we provide digital experiences which are comparable if not better than those in other industries? How do we translate multichannel, customer-centricity and patient-centricity from buzzwords to tangible and effective actions? It is clear that moving from procuring predefined tactics to partnering with innovative agencies to create new solutions is the way forward. At Ashfield Healthcare Communications this is very much the way we like to approach problem solving and we have built successful partnerships with our clients where our clinical, digital, strategic and creative experts collaborate to drive innovation across all aspects of medical communication.

The future is waiting for pharma to embrace it and I hope to see a much larger presence in Austin next year.

Nigel Campbell is a Multichannel Communications Director with Ashfield Healthcare Communications. He has spent the past 25 years working in creative communication across all channels, in multiple therapy areas for global healthcare clients. In his spare time he is a photographer, musician, astronomer and collector of comic books.

You can follow Nigel’s adventures on twitter @nigelccampbell.

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