Disruptive Impact of AI on Pharma Sales And Marketing

Artificial Intelligence (AI) that refers to the ability of machines to perform cognitive tasks like thinking, perceiving, learning, problem solving and decision making, is poised to disrupt our world. Initially conceived as a technology that could mimic human intelligence, AI has evolved in ways that far exceed its original conception. This was articulated in the June 2018 Discussion Paper, titled ‘National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence’ of NITI Aayog, India.

The paper further highlights: With intelligent machines enabling high-level cognitive processes like thinking, perceiving, learning, problem solving and decision making, coupled with advances in data collection and aggregation, analytics and computer processing power, AI’s capability has dramatically expanded. So is its game-changing utility in a growing number of fields to enhance productivity – dramatically.

I also expressed this need in my article, “Indian Pharma To Stay Ahead of The Technology Curve,” published in this Blog on May 22, 2017. Nevertheless, despite galloping progress of AI, a kind of ‘Ostrich Syndrome’ still prevails in some sections of the industry. This attitude, if continues, may catch many drug companies off-guard, with serious repercussions on business. In this article, I shall focus on the possible impact of AI on pharma business, specifically on pharma sales and marketing, instead of being prescriptive in my deliberation.

A disruptive impact on pharma value-chain:

Currently, only a few drug companies have embraced AI-driven technologies to transform pharma value-chain elements, across functional areas of the organization. However, in the next few years, effective adaptation of AI, in the true sense, will be the key success factors for any player – nurturing a burning desire to succeed, consistently. This was, again, an important conclusion of the 2019 FICCI Report titled, ‘Use of Artificial Intelligence and Advanced Analytics in pharmaceuticals.’

While explaining its rationale, the report emphasizes – catalyzed by an exciting range of new, disruptive technologies a paradigm shift is taking place, challenging the status quo with the traditional pharma business model. AI is in the process of disrupting this status quo, especially in the following two areas:

  • Increasing stakeholder pressure to reduce costs and demonstrate greater value of drugs,
  • Evolving swing from treatment to prevention, and patient-centric treatments.

Prompts a critical need to re-imagine the future:

These inevitable shifts prompt a critical need to re-imagine the future, for each drug manufacturer. However, the good news is, some of them, predominantly the global ones, have started making sizeable investments on AI. On a deeper scrutiny, the FICCI paper finds that applications of AI are mostly taking place in the new drug discovery and the supply chain area.

Besides individual company initiatives in the R&D area, important collaborative arrangements on AI with academia, have also been announced, such as, ‘Machine Learning for Pharmaceutical Discovery and Synthesis Consortium (MLPDS). This is a collaboration between the pharma/ biotech industries and the departments of Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, and Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

MLPDS is expected to facilitate the design of useful software for the automation of small molecule discovery and synthesis. As on July 02, 2019, reportedly, ‘33 Pharma Companies Using Artificial Intelligence in Drug Discovery.’That said,let me hasten to add that some companies are also testing the water, with all seriousness, in pharma sales and marketing functions. So, the AI wave is fast catching up, driving the drug industry to chart uncharted frontiers. In this scenario, would there be any scope of survival for laggards?

Should it happen faster in pharma sales and marketing, as well?

In my view, the answer is an emphatic ‘Yes.’ This is primarily because, the disruptive impact of AI won’t be any less in pharma sales and marketing. It will, therefore, be prudent for these professionals, not just to understand how AI works in their respective functions, but also the ways to effectively use various AI platforms and applications, to transform the traditional processes, fundamentally.

Moreover, when stakeholders, including patients, doctors, hospitals, health insurance companies and even governments, are directly or indirectly using a host of AI-enabled tools and applications for better outcomes, does pharma have any other option?

Areas in which the impact could be transformative:

The recent publication titled, ‘Boosting Pharmaceutical Sales and Marketing with Artificial Intelligence’ of ZS, analyzed this issue quite well. It emphasized, those functions in the drug industry where there exists a significant reliance on human functions, such as expertise and reasoning, the impact of AI can be transformative.

Sales and marketing are two such focus areas, besides other functions. Companies that use AI to orchestrate a cohesive customer experience, will drive stronger differentiation, better customer access and higher sales impact, the report highlighted. Thus, creating specific opportunities and requisite empowerment, are necessary for deserving people, to foster machine learning and human integration in sales and marketing. This, in turn, will help them gain insight into how to unleash the power and value of AI for achieving business excellence.

Some early adopters of AI in sales and marketing:

Recent reports indicate that some global pharma majors have started using AI in sales and marketing. Let me illustrate this point with two examples – Pfizer and Novartis.

In May 2017, Pfizer Australia, reportedly, adopted AI-powered digital analyst tool for sales and marketing decision making.This ‘What-if Simulator’, allows Pfizer to test and optimize a range of scenarios based on internal and external data sets. It helps simulate the impact of sales and marketing strategies, investigate assumptions and hypothesis difficult to test in the real world, and compare the outcome of various what-if scenarios in order to understand what’s contributing to business results. According to Pfizer, ‘the software will also help to understand deterministic and non-deterministic factors presented in its business operations, as well as see how variables within different questions impact one another’.

Another recent media report titled, ‘Novartis puts AI on the job to help reps say the right things to the right doctors,’ appeared in Fierce Pharma on January 09, 2019. It also confirms the keen interest of pharma in this area. Called “virtual assistant,”this application helps salespeople to make sure when they visit a specific doctor that they are talking about exactly what that doctor is absolutely interested in. “When you turn up at the right time with the right things to say, they’re more interested and put more value in it, and our people like the fact that AI is running in the background helping them plan their day,” Novartis official further elaborated.

Accept the dictum – ‘there is always enough room for improvement’:

Following this dictum, is the starting point for pharma marketers to seriously accept AI as a game changer in this industry, regardless of how successful the company is – in doing what they do, following the traditional business models. The core purpose of a drug company is to make sure that patients get what they want, in those disease areas where the company represents.

If a brand strategy is prepared based on research data collected a few months back, there could probably be a flaw in your strategy. This is because any recent offering to patients by a competitor, may have considerably changed what the patients want now. If a strategy is not based on virtually real-time information on what exactly the customers are looking for now, the result could be far from satisfactory.

The elements which are critical in creating ‘great brands,’ were nicely captured in the May 13, 2019 issue of Customer THINK on ‘AI in Digital Marketing.’ It articulated, ‘Great brands will be those that can think creatively, design effectively, and execute flawlessly to deliver seamless experiences woven together by machines and humans.  Using this approach, marketers and their marketing machines will stay gainfully employed.’ Thus, creative application of AI by astute pharma marketers will help achieving this goal.

Will AI ultimately replace pharma sales and marketing people?

This is a lurking fear in the minds of many. A related article appeared in the pharmaphorum on July 02, 2019, also wrote about a similar apprehension. The paper is titled, ‘Will AI make pharma marketers obsolete?’ It said: ‘Artificial intelligence, is sometimes seen as either a panacea or a destroyer – the fix for all humanity’s problems, or the apocalyptic scourge that will turn on us.’

I too reckon, AI can never replace people in pharma sales and marketing operations. This is because, there are two distinct elements in both these functions. One, the creative power of a professional that creates, develops, hones, and executes new ideas, strategies. It even decides how effectively AI can be used. The second element is the technological power behind AI. This can carry out a host of different very important, but routine and repetitive tasks – with a great amount of precision and virtually flawless. As the key sales and marketing professionals will need both, the AI can’t completelyreplace people in these two critical operational areas.

Some uses of AI in sales and marketing:

Eularis, in its ‘Blog, Comment & Insight’ of January 15, 2018, deliberated on this area. Just to give a feel of possible use of AI in different very important, but routine and repetitive tasks – with a great amount of precision, I am summarizing some of those points, as follows:

  • ‘Identification and Mapping’ of’ Key Opinion Leader (and up-and-coming Key Opinion Leader), which is constantly changing. Alongside, it can help scan and analyze all relevant journal articles, coming out each week, besides the same for ongoing clinical trials in the chosen field – flagging how changes and new additions can impact the KOL database.
  • Disease specific patient identification and physician targeting, especially in rare disease areas.
  • Helps identify individual preferences for content, channels and timing of information, that leads to allowing personalization at scale, and ensuring every customer is receiving what they want, when they want, and in the channel they want.
  • Facilitates utilizing the power of big data, AI tools and apps to identify which patients will cease adherence and how this can be addressed, thereby minimizing the loss of business for non-adherence.
  • Helps create custom messaging for sales reps to use for individual physicians based on what that physician needs at that particular moment in time.

Conclusion:

Use of AI-based technology in the pharma industry, basically means automated algorithms with the capability to perform all those tasks that are now being done mostly with heavy dependence on human intelligence. Thus, its possible use spans across almost all functional domains – from drug discovery, clinical development, supply chain and right up to sales and marketing.

Although, it is still challenging to figure out to what extent AI will transform the industry, one gets a strong signal that it is not just another ‘buzz word’ or a new kid on the block. The technology is surely spreading its roots across the health care space, pharma being an integral part of it. Which is why, according to ‘Executive Insight’ (Volume XX, Issue 60) of  L.E.K. Consulting, ‘all of the largest 10 pharmaceutical companies are investing in AI, and developments in applications are occurring across the spectrum of pharma business.’

In fine, to fathom the disruptive impact of AI on pharma business, I shall conclude by quoting from March 18, 2019issue of Healthcare Weekly. After a thorough analysis, the paper acknowledged thatAI is already redefining biotech and pharma. It concluded by stating, ‘ten years from now, pharma will simply look at artificial intelligence as a basic, every day, technology. The only question is how long pharma executive will wait till they jump on the wagon and leverage AI to improve their operational efficiency, outcomes and profits.’

By: Tapan J. Ray   

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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