Susanne Gruber of Sidekick Health on Why One Size Does Not Fit All in Healthcare

By Teresa Murray, freelance Healthtech writer and Bronwyn Hemus, Senior Content Editor, Sidekick Health, for Giant Health Conference

Susanne Gruber left her brilliant career of 19 years at Novartis to join a thriving digital therapeutics company, Sidekick Health, as their new VP for Pharma Partnerships. Susanne worked her way up the ranks at Novartis, first holding more commercial roles, before becoming the Global Head of Digital Solutions for the Respiratory Business Franchise of the company.

Susanne says she made the move to Sidekick because she wanted to have a more active role in building digital health solutions that are scalable and work across multiple diseases. In addition, Sidekick has a close-knit company culture and a dynamic way of doing things which Susanne found to be an attractive prospect.

In her leadership role at Novartis, Susanne witnessed first-hand the limitations of more drug-focused pharma companies when it came to advancing digital therapeutics. She gives the example of asthma where, like many chronic conditions, Susanne saw that one size does not fit all.

The limitations of working from within the narrow constraints of a primarily disease-driven approach was also problematic for Susanne, as this approach does not prioritize the prevalence of co-morbidities and each patient’s unique lifestyle and environment.

It was Sidekick’s focus on innovation that captured Susanne’s interest. Sidekick takes a patient-centric approach rather than a disease-specific one. Instead of looking at
patient health from the perspective of the disease itself, Sidekick considers the patient first, and includes lifestyle and environment, which helps shift the treatment focus to
one that prioritizes overall well-being and quality of life.

Sidekick’s digital care platform combines an evidence-based clinical approach with behavioural economics and gamification, giving users 360º support and a personalised treatment plan. By providing users with bite-sized disease-specific education, users are empowered to better manage their condition(s).

The platform is aptly named. A sidekick is your best buddy, a buddy who is always with you on your adventures in life. On the Sidekick platform, your Sidekick buddy even
does the exercises with you!

Not many real-life buddies are up for that!

Susanne explains that she really identifies with Sidekick’s three core pillars that form the basis for the company’s philosophy and value proposition.

The first pillar is the fact that Sidekick takes clinical evidence very seriously. Coming from pharma, Susanne knows how important this is to physicians, payers and increasingly patients too. When developing a new disease program, Sidekick first runs a feasibility study to help determine if the program components are viable, and what the success factors are. Once this milestone is achieved, the company engages in more complex clinical trials. This focus on generating and leveraging serious clinical evidence is of supreme importance to Sidekick as it builds trust and demonstrates the company’s commitment to that therapeutic area (TA).

It builds credibility.

Sidekick also makes it a priority to work closely with key experts in the field of each TA, and ensures that the disease-specific programs are informed by the latest scientific
knowledge, and closely follow established guidelines and recommendations. Behavioural economics is the second pillar in Sidekick’s digital care platform. By combining lessons in psychology and economics, and by considering how people are influenced by their emotions, identity, and environment, Sidekick builds programs that
guide people toward better choices.

The third pillar is the personalisation and individualised support that people need in their care journey. As Susanne highlighted previously, one size does not fit all. The Sidekick platform takes a person’s distinctive traits into consideration and delivers a more effective, holistic approach.

Particularly given the impact of lifestyle on so many chronic illnesses.

This tailoring is a key element of Sidekick and provides the engagement and motivational inputs to bring about real change. The core tenets of behaviour change, knowledge, motivation and self-efficacy, are reflected in the design of the app and the overall user experience. Users are given structured programs in which they are encouraged to self-monitor, set goals, and complete tasks, while receiving support and positive reinforcement throughout their journey. Gamification is part of the experience as users receive personalised insights, motivational challenges, and rewards for their progression, all of which is designed to boost user engagement and
improve outcomes.

Sidekick brings empathy to the equation as well.

After all, as science has revealed, people don’t change their habits or beliefs just from information, they are also driven by social and emotional factors.

Sidekick leverages this very well.

Users are given tailored missions and tasks to complete. The focus of each mission and task comes from the platform’s gradual learning about the person using it. The missions and tasks are then adapted to the specific situation and habits of the person.

This goes back to what Susanne says about everyone being different and requiring different things at different times. There is no point in the Sidekick platform focusing on a person’s fitness if they are already a fitness fanatic. From the person’s logging and activity on the platform, Sidekick learns to focus on the areas that do need change and targets these specific behavioural areas.

No motivation, no behavioural change.

The Sidekick platform also includes a coaching component, with a coach on hand to help and support, especially when a user’s enthusiasm begins to wane. Coaches can send personalised messages and motivating nudges to encourage the user to keep going.

When it comes to motivation, Sidekick believes in “Doing well, by doing good”. This philosophy is reflected in the built-in incentives that guide the missions and tasks that the platform gives to the user. When a user completes a task successfully, they receive drops of water which can be donated through Sidekick’s partner, Charity Water.

Many studies indicate that doing things to help others makes us feel good.

Susanne believes that there is a lot of room for deep collaboration between pharma and digital therapeutics companies like Sidekick. An example could be starting to collaborate in earlier development phases of drugs, like in phase 3 clinical trials, where she sees digital therapeutics companies like Sidekick being included as an endpoint, bringing better outcomes for the patient.

This in turn could lead to co-approval of the digital therapeutic or even co-prescription.

But Sidekick is not limiting itself to pharma partnerships. The company already has a partnership in place with a top US payer, and intends to explore further partnerships of this nature. This is key as being in on the reimbursement side of the market is critical to successful monetisation strategies.

In this sense, too, leveraging real-world evidence could pave the way for value-based or risk-based conversations in the future around efficacy with the payer sector,
Susanne says.

Susanne’s journey at Sidekick is just 4 months old. She says she is still learning, but is excited about her new role and the company she has joined, and feels the move came at the right time for her. Sidekick, founded in 2014 by two physicians, Dr. Tryggvi Thorgeirsson and Dr. Sam Oddsson, is experiencing an exciting growth phase.

From Susanne’s perspective, the future for digital therapeutics is not to replace drugs. She sees digital therapeutics as having a key role in driving positive impact on chronic disease outcomes. The current momentum and increasing digital therapeutics adoption reflects the change wave that healthcare is experiencing. Susanne sees the future of digital therapeutics as being a very bright one.

Whilst Sidekick does use data-driven Artificial Intelligence (AI), the aim is not to replace physicians with digital solutions or AI-driven technologies. After all, physicians have a fundamental role in diagnosing illness and disease and formulating treatment plans. That said, physicians are key stakeholders when it comes to prescribing and recommending digital therapeutic programs and adopting AI-driven solutions that improve healthcare for patients.

On this point of AI and machine learning affecting the role of the physician, Susanne draws on a pearl of wisdom from one of her colleagues: AI will not replace the clinician, but the clinician who fails to adopt or understand the utility of AI and digital will no doubt be quickly replaced.

Food for thought indeed.

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