Mobile medical and health applications have been in a boom phase for the past few years, but despite this trend, one group of entities has had trouble breaking into the mobile medical app sphere, pharmaceutical (i.e., pharma) companies.  A recent report published by Research2Guidance,  indicates that most major pharmaceutical companies have had trouble generating downloads for their health-related apps and even when they do, have trouble getting users to continue using their products.[1]  For example, some of the most successful pharma companies have only a handful of apps and less than 1 million active users.[2]  By contrast, there are more than a hundred thousand health-related apps on Google’s Play store and Apple’s iTunes store based on recent calculations, and some experts estimate that there could be as many as 500 million users of medical applications by 2015.[3]  What is the cause of this inability to generate downloads or hang on to users?  There are a few possibilities.

First, many pharma company apps are marketed to or focused on assisting current or potential users of the company’s products.  Even if a particular medicine developed by a pharma company has a broad user base, that base is only going to be a small fraction of the total number of mobile medical app users.  Most successful mobile medical and health app manufacturers are able to target a wide swath of smartphone users and therefore can realize a larger number of downloads per app.  The second and related issue is the subject matter of most apps.  As mentioned above, if a pharma company makes an app that is only interesting to someone who has a specific disease state that the company’s product targets, the app’s market penetration will be very low.  Lastly, the Research2Guidance report indicates that pharma companies do not have a cohesive vision in their apps and therefore users may have difficulty associating a common brand with the various offerings a single company may distribute.[4]  All of these factors pose significant hurdles to pharma companies that are trying to break into this market.

Are pharma companies headed for failure in the mobile app space?  Perhaps, but maybe that is because they are on the wrong side of the fence.  Pharma companies have enormous resources that many mobile health application developers would give an arm and a leg, or more realistically the right to co-brand, to get a piece of.  Additionally, the Pharma companies could achieve a better reach by broadening their horizons beyond apps that directly promote their products.  The pharma companies may also want to partner with large provider entities, to the extent permitted by applicable law such as the federal Anti-Kickback Statute. These types of partnerships could help relieve the distrust many users may have towards a large pharmaceutical company.  In other words, patients and lay users are more likely to trust their doctors than the company that makes their medications.

Ultimately, the clear trend over time demonstrates that pharma companies in the mobile app space will need to modify their approach to better serve the desires of mobile app users and achieve success on a larger scale.  If the pharma companies can evolve and better address the needs of mobile app users, they may be able to succeed in the future.


[1] Pogorzelska, Zuzanna. “Why Pharma companies fail to have an impact on the mHealth app economy.” Research2Guidance – Mobile Health Economics.

[2] Comstock, Jonah. “Report: Pharma companies have many apps, relatively few downloads.” MobiHealth News. Oct. 27, 2014.

[3] Kamerow, Douglas. “Regulating medical apps: which ones and how much?” The BMJ. 2013;347:f6009.

[4] Id at Note 1.