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Covid-19 Is Fueling A Digital Therapeutics Revolution

In just a few short years, digital therapeutics (DTx) have become an exciting, incredibly competitive new frontier in healthcare. For those not familiar, DTx deliver evidence-based therapeutic interventions to patients via software applications, and are meant to prevent, manage or treat a broad spectrum of physical, mental and behavioral conditions. Often touted to be just as clinically effective as pharmaceuticals, DTx development costs are significantly less than typical pharmaceuticals, which usually take billions to bring to market. But cost is just one of a growing number of factors that are attracting more and more people to take DTx seriously.

An independent part of the larger digital-health ecosystem, the market for DTx has been steadily growing. A May 2019 forecast by Juniper Research predicted a 1,000 percent growth trajectory over the next five years to more than $32 billion. However, while the data indicates it’s a fertile area in the notoriously stodgy healthcare arena, like all things in health, reaching full market maturity will require convincing healthcare’s four big “Ps” — patients, providers, policymakers and payers.

Madorra Pennington is a seasoned writer who is probably best known for her Pain News Network reporting and personal journey with chronic pain. She writes a regular blog for PNN chronicling her experiences with many pain-relief modalities over the years. She recently tried a digital therapeutic (DTx) to see if it could help relieve chronic pain associated with her Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.

Pennington turned to a virtual reality headset and program supplied by Los Angeles-based AppliedVR. After just a few weeks of treatment, she came away impressed with the overall experience. She writes, “The benefits of VR therapy continued for me after the sessions ended. When pain or panic about pain began to set in, I found it drifts away rather than latching onto me like it used to.” 

Convincing other patients like Pennington to rely less on pharmaceutical interventions and actually trust a digital tool to achieve a health outcome is the biggest challenge for any DTx. 

For chronic pain, however, relying less on pharma has potentially huge implications. While all eyes are rightfully on COVID-19, our country is still being ravaged by the opioid crisis, a health catastrophe that not only takes lives and devastates families, but also costs a mind-blowing 3.4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). So it makes sense that many industry insiders and patient advocacy groups see the potential in DTx, such as the virtual reality Pennington found helpful, to improve the quality of life for all patients suffering from chronic conditions. 

Unfortunately, many DTx (like virtual reality, or “VR”) still aren’t readily available to the average patient: they haven’t been widely adopted by the provider community, haven’t been fully cleared by the FDA and, in many cases, haven’t been approved for reimbursement by payers. 

For most DTx players, getting those groups onboard is not an easy (or cheap) proposition and requires rigorous clinical and feasibility studies.

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