How Mobile Health Apps Are Driving the Conversion of Prescription Drugs to Over-the-Counter Medication

Vidhu Dev

PharmD, Vice President, Rx to OTC Switch R&D

From bits to pills, companion apps for converted over-the-counter (OTC) medication are rewiring consumer behavior and creating new opportunities in healthcare technology and OTC marketing.

As a scientifically rigorous, highly-regulated, data-driven process, the transfer of prescription drugs to non-prescription status (or Rx-to-OTC switch, as it is commonly referred to) has effectively introduced new OTC treatment options for a number of conditions, including allergies, yeast infections, heartburn, diarrhoea, overactive bladder, weight loss and smoking cessation.

Every dollar spent by consumers on OTC medicines saves the US healthcare system $6-$7, contributing a total of $102 billion in savings each year according to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA).

Moreover, a 2017 co-authored report by Nielsen and the CHPA further reveals that while there’s been a national upsurge of 9.2 million allergy sufferers between 2010 and 2015, the majority of sufferers (60%) treated themselves through OTC medication without the need for professional diagnosis or assistance.

The graph below pulls from Nielsen’s 2016 dataset to represent the changing nature of Rx-to-OTC trends:

As a result of this shift in the roles consumers and their physicians play in choosing and accessing medication, a host of new tools are emerging in the OTC market to educate and empower an increasingly independent public. Spurred by the growth in digital, these various apps and platforms amplify the Rx-to-OTC switch’s endeavors to allow patients to self-regulate manageable conditions.

'Chronic diseases like allergies can be a burden on health, finances and time. Now people have more options than ever for self-care, like leveraging online sources to find health-related information or by using OTC medicines as a first line of defense.'

—Andrew Mandzy, director of the Health & Wellness Growth & Strategy team at Nielsen.


BCC Research — which conducts periodic studies on different technology-based markets — forecasts global revenues for the mobile health market to reach $21.5 billion in 2018, with Europe leading in the number of connected medical devices and healthcare applications.

From 24/7 virtual conferencing with doctors and therapists, to ongoing monitoring of chronic diseases, a spectrum of use cases exist in the market to self-regulate health and well-being. GSK's MyAsthma is one such app that enables users to track their symptoms and compare them against weather, pollution, pollen and activity data to spot patterns and identify triggers in their asthma attacks. 

Paired with a product like Flonase® Allergy Relief, we’ve singlehandedly managed to grow the allergy category as a whole. It’s by making our products and the knowledge around them more readily accessible that GSK generated more than $1.2 billion in annual retail sales from switches in the United States alone.


GSK’s 25+ Years of USA Rx-To-OTC Switch Experience*

*Four additional products, approved for Rx-to-OTC switch outside of the United States only, are not shown.

According to a 2017 PinneyAssociates survey, 50% of participants indicated they would be willing to pay more for the OTC product when it had a companion mHealth app.

Since new lines of medicine bring much needed access to treating certain conditions, supporting platforms are a preliminary validation of these new medications. For the first-time customer, this can mean the difference between a purchase or a pass. Currently, there are upwards of 165,000 collective health-related apps between the Google and Apple app stores, a fraction of which are focused on OTC medication.

Though this sheer quantity of companion apps demonstrates the proliferation of the nascent market, it also highlights the saturation of the industry and the need to consolidate software. To ensure effective yet nonintrusive patient monitoring, mobile health developers will need to design for data privacy and accuracy, trust and transparency.

Without ensuring strong, sufficient evidence that clinically validates an mHealth app or associated device/tracker/sensor, American Heart Association Executive Vice President and CEO James L. Madara, MD states that physicians simply won’t integrate mHealth apps into their practices.

While that may deter some patients from using certain apps, others choose to take the matter into their own hands without a comprehensive understanding of how to do so, which is why the Journal of the American Medical Association proposes a new breed of medical specialist: the "Medical Virtualist".

Used to describe physicians who will spend the large majority of their time caring for patients through a virtual medium (or media), these medical professionals' online presence will bring clarity to self-care and further drive OTC sales. During a time when the OTC category is growing at a compound annual rate of 5 percent for the past 5 years globally (according to Euromonitor), telemedicine will likely sustain the momentum of the category, aiding in a general transition towards digitally guided self-care for minor illnesses.

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