COVID-19’s Clampdown on Clinical Trials Gives Spencer Health New Opportunity
Spencer Health has developed a smart medication dispensing technology that helps patients stick to prescribing instructions. Now the Durham-based company is striking up alliances with pharma companies, helping them monitor how patients take their drugs at home while also providing the drug makers insight about how the medicines in clinical testing are workin
“As a country, we take about half the meds that are prescribed to us, as directed,” Rhoads said. “A lot of those are life-saving meds. When you’re not taking them correctly, you can open yourself to side effects or advancement of disease. We invoke the medication management aspect, the care coordination aspect, and ultimately, the insight management.”
Spencer Health’s roots are in Parata Systems, a Durham company that sells robotic systems that sort and dispense medications in pharmacies. By automating these processes, Parata aims to improve the efficiency of pharmacies and reduce prescription errors. In 2015, Parata began developing a countertop system for dispensing medications in a patient’s home, Rhoads said. The device included additional features for monitoring patients and reporting data to physicians and pharmacies.
Parata decided to spin out its project as a separate company, named HAP Innovations for HAP Investment Group, an investor. Rhoads said that as the HAP product moved closer to the market, the company named it spencer smart hub – the name Spencer means “keeper of provisions.” The company also adopted the name Spencer Health Solutions.
Spencer Health launched its smart hub in 2016, offering the product to companies in the care management sector. The product is not available directly to consumers. By 2019, the company claimed that use of the device led to a greater than 95 percent medication adherence for chronically ill patients. The company also reported strong patient engagement with the technology, stating that 75 percent of users responded to questions presented on the product's touchscreen.
System helps bypass in-person visits
The Spencer Health technology is now finding a place in clinical trials. In a typical clinical trial, patients visit the trial site, such as an academic hospital. But COVID-19 protocols that minimize in-person contact put a clamp on clinical studies across the entire pharmaceutical sector. Rhoads said that Spencer Health had long envisioned placing its technology with pharmaceutical companies as a new tool for clinical trials. COVID-19 accelerated those plans by about three years.
Spencer Health is positioning its product as a tool to help pharma companies run their clinical trials remotely by enabling patients to participate from their homes. The Spencer device, about the size of a small kitchen appliance, is shipped directly to a patient’s home with the medications (pills for now) that are being tested in the study. Once unboxed, setup is as simple as plugging in the smart hub and placing the package of medicines inside it.
Patients navigate the Spencer product’s features via the touchscreen. When medication is dispensed, the device can also present information about the medicine or prompt patients to answer questions about their health. Other features include the ability to collect data from other devices, such as glucose monitors and blood pressure cuffs, and transmit that information to clinical trial investigators. If the study investigators or a patient needs to discuss something, the device can host a video call. Spencer can also respond to a patient’s needs, Rhoads said. For example, if a patient reports feeling nauseated, the device can dose medication to treat those symptoms.
Agreement signed with Otsuka Pharmaceutical
Spencer Health recently announced that Otsuka Pharmaceutical, a Japanese company with U.S. operations in New Jersey, has signed on to use the smart hub in its clinical trials. Rhoads said that those trials span several diseases, including mental health disorders. The partners hope the device improves compliance with a drug regimen, ensuring that patients take the right dose of medication at specified times and that they continue to do so for the duration of the study.
Spencer Health counts as customers two other pharmaceutical companies and one large payer, though their names have not been disclosed. Rhoads said a payer would provide the Spencer product to those who are determined eligible---typically those managing two or more chronic conditions and taking five or more medications per day.
In time, Rhoads said he hopes Spencer Health can expand its industry partnerships to include commercialized drugs. In those arrangements, Spencer would become piece of a pharma company’s outreach, extending new patient support capabilities to the home, he said.
In addition to connecting with biometric devices, the Spencer product also works with interactive response technology and electronic data capture systems used by clinical trial sites. Additional features in development include the capability to dispense drugs besides pill formulations, such as injectables and patches.
“Our goal is to become the home health platform for clinical trials,” Rhoads said.