Pharma ‘Chatbots’: For Better Stakeholder Engagement

The critical value of meaningful interaction and engagement with individual customers – responding to their specific needs, is fast drawing attention of many businesses, for sustainable performance excellence. The same is happening in the pharma industry, as well. Creative use of this process leveraging modern technological support systems, would also provide a unique scope of cutting-edge brand service differentiation, in well researched areas.

That, it is a very important focus area for the pharma players, is no-brainer. Nonetheless, what really matters most is the novelty in strategizing such interactions and engagements, especially with patients and doctors. I also wrote about it in my article, titled ‘Indian Pharma To Stay Ahead of Technology Curve,’ published in this blog on May 22, 2017. Over two years ago, I clearly indicated there that application of AI via digital tools, called ‘Chatbots’ – the shorter form of ‘Chat Robot’, is one of the ways that pharma may wish to explore this area.

Illustrating this point in that article, I mentioned that on March 05, 2017, a leading bank in India announced the launch of an AI-driven Chatbot named Eva, coined from the words Electronic Virtual Assistant (EVA), to add more value to their services for greater customer satisfaction. ‘According to reports, Eva is India’s first AI driven banking Chatbot that can answer millions of customer queries on its own, across multiple channels, immediately.’

In this article, I shall dwell on this interesting area, with a primary focus on pharma sales and marketing, and assess the progress made in this space, thus far, by several drug companies, including some Indian players. Let me start by recapitulating the basic function and purpose of ‘Chatbots’ in pharma.

Pharma ‘Chatbots’ – the function and purpose:

Simply speaking, pharma ‘Chatbots’ are also AI-powered, fully automated virtual assistants. Its basic function is to mimic one-to-one human conversation on particular areas, as desired by the user. Likewise, its basic purpose is to genuinely help and assist the customers who are in search of right answers to specific disease related questions, in a one-to-one conversational format, having a higher source-credibility.

In that process, ‘Chatbots’ can effectively satisfy the patients and doctors by providing them the required information, immediately. In tandem, pharma companies also reap a rich harvest, by developing not just a trust-based healthy relationship with them, but also in building a robust corporate brand – creating a long-term goodwill that competition would possibly envy.  

Effective customer satisfaction is an area that can’t be ignored:

In the digital age, a new type of general need is all pervasive, with its demand shooting north. This is the need to satisfy a voracious appetite among a large section of the population for all types of information, with effortless and prompt availability of the required details – as and when these come to one’s mind.

When such information need relates to health concern of a person, such as – available treatment options against affordability, or drug price comparisons – factoring in effectiveness, safety concern – exactly the same thing happens. Most individuals won’t have patience even to write an email and wait for an answer, even the wait is just for a short while.

In the current scenario, it will be interesting to fathom, how would a pharma company, generally, interact or engage with such patients, to further business and creating a possible long-time customer? Some companies have started responding to this need – effectively and efficiently, by providing easy access to information through ‘Chatbots’, created on advances AI platforms. But, such players are a few in number.

Can pharma also think of ‘Chatbots’, likeSiriorAlexa?

Today, several people are using standalone and branded Chatbot devices in everyday life, such as, Siri (Apple), Alexa (Amazon), Cortana (Microsoft) or Google Now (Android). Interestingly, many industries, including a few companies in pharma, have also started developing their own version of ‘Chatbot dialog application systems.’

Industry specific ‘Chatbots’ are designed to meet with some specific purpose of human communication, including a variety of customer interaction, information acquisition and engagement – by providing a range of customized services to the target group.’ ‘Siri’ or ‘Alexa’ or the likes, on the other hand, are all-purpose general Chatbots, though, for everyday use of individuals. Thus, the question that comes up, in which areas pharma companies can use Chatbots to add value to their interactions and engagements with patients, in general, and also doctors.

Where to use ‘Chatbots’ as a new pharma marketing channel?

Some of the findings on the application of ‘Chatbots’, especially in pharma sales and marketing, featured in the CMI Media publication in December, 2016. It found that drug companies have a unique scope to leverage this new sales and marketing – channel, by developing ‘Chatbots’ in the company represented therapy areas. Following are just a few most simple illustrations of possible types ‘Chatbots’ for interaction and engagement with patients, which can be designed in interesting ways:

  • That can answer all types of patient questions on specific diseases, educate them about the disease and available treatment options with details.
  • That allows patients or physicians to get all relevant information about the prescription drugs that they require to prescribe for patients to start treatment, including potential side effects, adverse events, tolerability, dosing, efficacy and costs, besides others.
  • Once a treatment option is chosen, a third kind of Chatbot can help with patient adherence to treatment, provide reminders when the treatment should be administered, explain how to properly dose and administer the treatment, and other relevant information.

Chatbots could also be useful for doctors and nurses:

As the above paper finds, ‘Chatbots have value for serving healthcare professionals as well, for example:

  • When, physicians and nurses want to understand the pathogenesis, pathophysiology, and/or progression of a specific disease in their patients.
  • Although, such content may also be available on disease state awareness sites, but branded Chatbots would make that content readily available in more of an FAQ format.
  • When health care professionals would like to get data around safety/toxicity, or information about dosing strengths, calculations, and titrations, while using specific brands.

Chatbots can also be effectively utilized by the drug manufacturer to gain deep insights into customer behavior across all touchpoints, to enhance end-to-end customer experience, as I wrote in this blog on July 02, 2018. The data created through this process, can also be put to strategic use to design unique brand offerings.

Need to chart this frontier with caution:

Pharma, being a highly regulated industry in every country of the world, with a varying degree, though, the ‘Chatbot’ development process should strictly conform to all ‘Dos’ and ‘Don’ts’, as prescribed by the regulators of each country. Each and every content of the ‘Chatbot’ should pass through intense, not just regulatory, but also legal and medical scrutiny. Yet another, critical redline that ‘Chatbots’ should never cross is the ‘privacy’ of any individual involved in the process.

Three critical areas to consider for pharma ‘Chatbots’:

Effective pharma ‘Chatbots’ are expected to get ticks on all three of the following critical boxes:

  • Meeting clearly defined unmet needs of patients in search of a health care solution or most suitable disease treatment options.
  • Brand value offerings should match or be very close to the targeted patients’ and doctors’ expectations.
  • Should facilitate achieving company’s business objectives in a quantifiable manner, directly or indirectly, as was planned in advance.

Pharma has made some progress in this area, even in India:

To facilitate more meaningful and deeper engagements with patients, some drug companies, including, in India, are using ‘Chatbots.’ Here, I shall give just three examples to drive home the point – two from outside India and one from India.

October 23, 2018 issue of the pharma letter reported, a study from DRG Digital Manhattan Research found, ‘Novo Nordisk and Sanofi brands rank best for the digital type 2 diabetes patient experience.’ The article wrote, about some pharma players ‘facilitating deeper engagement through the use of automated tools like Chatbots to triage inquiries and get patients the answers they need faster, and through interactive content like quizzes and questionnaires that pull patients in and help them navigate health decisions,’ as follows:

  • Novo Nordisk‘s diabetes website includes an automated Chat feature dubbed “Ask Sophia,” helping patients access disease and condition management information more quickly.
  • Likewise, Merck & Co‘s website for Januvia employs interactive quizzes to educate patients and caregivers.

Similarly, on November 23, 2018, a leading Indian business daily came with a headline, ‘Lupin launches first Chatbot for patients to know about their ailments.’ It further elaborated, the Chatbot named ‘ANYA’, is designed to provide medically verified information for health-related queries. The disease awareness bot aims to answer patient queries related to ailments,’ the report highlighted.

Chatbots – global market outlook:

According to the report, titled ‘Healthcare Chatbots – Global Market Outlook (2017-2026),’the Global Healthcare Chat bots market accounted for USD 97.46 million in 2017 and is expected to reach USD 618.54 million by 2026 growing at a CAGR of 22.8 percent.

The increasing demand for Chatbot ‘virtual health assistance’, is fueled primarily by the following two key growth drivers, the report added:

  • Increasing penetration of high-speed Internet.
  • Rising adoption of smart devices.

Conclusion:

With the steep increase of the usage of the Internet and smart phones, general demand to have greater access to customized information is also showing a sharp ascending trend, over a period of time. A general expectation of individuals is to get such information immediately and in a user-friendly way.

Encouraged by this trend, and after a reasonably thorough information gathering process, mainly from the cyberspace, many patients now want to more actively participate in their treatment decision making process with the doctors. This new development has a great relevance to drug companies, besides other health service providers. They get an opportunity to proactively interact and engage with patients in various innovative ways, responding to individual health needs and requirements, thereby boosting the sales revenue of the corporation.

The unique AI-driven technological platform of pharma ‘Chatbots’, is emerging as cutting-edge tools for more productive stakeholder engagement – so important for achieving business excellence in the digital world. The recent growth trajectory of ‘Chatbots’ in the health care space, vindicates this point.

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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