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We are well into the era of the engaged consumer. By now, many companies have recognized that traditional selling tactics like advertising and discounting only take them so far. Consumers want deeper connections, and companies ranging from Amazon and Apple to Spotify and Zappos have been happy to oblige. Using predictive algorithms that prioritize consumer preferences, these companies are finding inventive new ways to engage customers with games, stories, and sharing tools sent to their mobile devices.

Pharmaceutical companies should be doing the same thing. But many of them aren’t, or aren’t doing it well. For 16 years, I’ve witnessed their halting efforts to engage consumers from my vantage point as the cofounder and president of a cloud technology company that helps life science organizations better design, manage, and execute clinical trials.


A clinical trial is often the first chance that a pharmaceutical company has to engage with individuals who may one day be their customers. Many companies ignore this opportunity. By doing so, they fail to gather invaluable information about the effectiveness and safety of their products and the responsiveness and progress of the people taking them.

In a clinical trial, what does an engaged consumer look like? He or she feels confident of having an open, consistent dialogue with doctors and clinicians; intimately understands the purpose of the trial and his or her role in it; and is committed to following study protocols, making follow-up visits, and ultimately completing the trial.

Few pharmaceutical companies do enough to help study participants meet this level of engagement. Consider these facts about clinical trials: The average dropout rate is around 30 percent, and about 80 percent of clinical trials don’t finish on time. A key contributor to both of these problems is poor patient engagement. Some participants drop out of trials for reasons a sponsor can’t control, like negative reactions to a treatment. Far more often, the sponsors aren’t doing enough to educate participants, make it easy for them to follow the study protocols, or motivate them to stay engaged.


Some drug companies have taken baby steps toward engagement by launching patient-focused apps after getting approval for their drugs. By then, it’s too late.

Fortunately, technologies available today have enormous potential to improve the quality of clinical research and the level of patient engagement. Devices like Fitbit or Jawbone can do a lot more than tell you how many steps you’ve taken or how well you are sleeping. They can also provide a more precise understanding of how an individual responds to treatment during a clinical trial. Meanwhile, emerging software platforms like Apple’s CareKit will help developers and health care professionals create new interactive health care-related apps.

These tools can make it easier for clinical trial sponsors to improve engagement, whether it’s making participation easier by reducing the need for trips to a clinic or providing reminders for taking medicines in the right dose at the right time.

Clinical trials are the perfect environment in which to identify and focus on successful patient engagement strategies. For any pharmaceutical company or clinical trial sponsor looking to improve patient engagement, three priorities are key:

Act now. The FDA requires that all new therapeutics be tested in a rigorous, three-phase process. Engagement should be baked into this process from the start. The best time to study patients’ habits, preferences, and behaviors is during a trial as participants use the new drug, not after it has been approved.

Be objective. Clinical trial research often ignores objective measures about participants’ quality of life and instead relies on subjective data collected in surveys. Today’s mobile technologies let researchers continuously collect consistent, reliable, objective information about things that are meaningful to participants, such as the quality of their sleep or their ability to walk through the grocery store without fatigue.

Go with what works and what patients know. Pharmaceutical companies needn’t completely reinvent the customer engagement experience. People are increasingly and habitually using tools such as smartphone apps and activity trackers. The challenge for pharmaceutical companies is to keep up with the pace of digital innovation and understand the way new technologies can be used to reduce the burden that a clinical trial can place on participants.

To combine emerging digital technologies with traditional clinical measurements and techniques, existing hardware and software must be adapted for clinical use. There is clearly a lot of work to be done, but we already have the tools to increase patient engagement for new drugs. The key is to start early in the process.

Glen de Vries is president and cofounder of Medidata, which provides a cloud platform and data analytics for life science organizations conducting clinical research.