Washington, D.C. — In the first half of this new year, the United States FDA will incentivize many pharmaceutical brands to make their biggest prescription drugs available over the counter. One way the FDA will facilitate the switch from prescription to OTC is by approving smartphone apps through which users can determine whether a particular drug is right for them—without consulting a doctor—and then head over to their local pharmacies to pick them up.

This would have the biggest implications for widespread, chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and cholesterol. And it might be particularly appealing to those patients who are uninsured, who may be reluctant to pay for a doctor’s appointment.

Some brands may hesitate to make the leap over the counter, as insurance plans tend not to cover OTC drugs. But the economic benefits may still prove substantial. As Christopher Stomberg, a life sciences consultant at NERA Economic Consulting, told Bloomberg,“The over-the-counter product can breathe new life into the product commercially…[W]hat it introduces for the manufacturers, is the potential to reach some of these populations where the generic prescription may not be able to reach.”

While a number of prescription meds have become OTC in the past few years, many brands have held off due to their belief that millions of consumers would be unable to determine independently, without doctors, whether certain medications are right for them. But the FDA feels confident that, by now, apps are more than capable of providing the guidance needed.

As FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said, “It’s expensive and hard to go to the doctor. We want to facilitate compliance, and this is one way.”

Why This Matters

FDA officials believe that smartphone apps could be more effective than printed materials in helping consumers figure out if they need a certain drug. Accordingly, it will grow increasingly important that pharma brands craft the most engaging and informative possible experiences for patients’ own mobile devices. 

About the Author:

Ben helps spark innovative healthcare thinking as Associate Director of Innovation. Previously on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair, he brings experience in engaging, rigorous storytelling to the healthcare world. Ben’s goals are to move brands to rethink their roles, own their evolving narratives, and maintain vital and vigorous consumer relationships.