Prescription Only Apps???? – Marginal REVOLUTION

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Scott Alexander has a good post on prescription only Apps.

Trouble falling asleep? You could take sleeping pills, but they’ve got side effects. Guidelines recommend you try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy For Insomnia (CBT-i), a medication-free process where you train yourself to fall asleep by altering your schedule and sleep conditions.

…Late last year, Pear Therapeutics released a CBT-i app (formerly “SHUT-i”, now “Somryst”) which holds the patient’s hand through the complicated CBT-i process. Studies show it works as well as a real therapist, which is very well indeed. There’s only one catch: you need a doctor’s prescription.

The app is $899. The surprise is that it doesn’t seem that this is an FDA requirement (at least on the surface. It’s murky why no one else is offering a cheap app). Scott thinks it’s a play on the insurance companies:

My guess is that prescription-gating is necessary because it’s the last step in the process of transforming it from an app ($10 price tag) to a “digital therapeutic” ($899 price tag). The magic words for forcing insurance companies to pay for something is “a doctor said it was medically necessary”. Make sure that every use of Somryst is associated with a doctor’s prescription, and that’s a whole new level of officialness and charge-insurance-companies-lots-of-money-ability.

The good news is, Somryst has partnered with telemedicine provider UpScript. I know nothing about UpScript, but I suspect they are a rubber-stamping service. If you don’t have a doctor of your own, you can pay their fee, see a tele-doctor, and say “I would like a prescription for Somryst”. The tele-doctor asks if you have insomnia, you say yes/no/maybe/no hablo inglés, and the tele-doctor hands you a Somryst prescription and charges you $45.

On the one hand, at least this saves you from Doctor Search Hell. On the other, it involves paying $45 for the right to pay $899. So it’s kind of a wash.

In a way this is worse than an FDA requirement because at least we could mock an FDA requirement mercilessly and perhaps change it. Instead it seems that a combination of incentives and murky constraints have pushed patients, insurers and innovators into an equilibrium in which cheap things become expensive. It’s enough to keep anyone up at night.