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A common reality: How augmented reality is transforming the future of pharmaceutical marketing

A common reality: How augmented reality is transforming the future of pharmaceutical marketing

In the second installment of a three-part series exploring virtual and augmented reality, Harrison Gaiger explores the ways in which AR is transforming the future of pharmaceutical marketing.

In a previous article I explored the growing role that Virtual Reality (VR) is playing in the healthcare industry, including its use as a marketing tool for pharmaceutical companies, and questioned what the future of VR may look like in a world where technological advancements are being made every day. It seemed clear to me that while VR is still in the early stages of medical application, it’s already making a huge impact on the healthcare industry and that, regardless of its infancy, VR technology is most likely here to stay. Because of this I concluded by saying that tech-savvy pharmaceutical marketers should consider adding it to their future strategies as an invaluable means for engaging with customers. In the second instalment of this three-part series, I look at the ways in which Augmented Reality (AR) is transforming the future of pharmaceutical marketing.

The term ‘Augmented Reality’ is entering common parlance these days, thanks to the resurgence of VR headsets and the use of AR smartphone apps such as Snapchat and Pokémon Go. One of the biggest confusions in this world of immersive technologies is the difference between AR and VR. They sound similar but they’re two very different concepts. VR immerses the user in a fully artificial computer-generated environment with which they can interact. AR, meanwhile, overlays virtual 3D graphics on the real-world environment, augmenting the way users see their everyday life and bringing them more information.

As I established in my previous article, VR has shown exciting signs of potential, ranging from its ability to help medical students learn about our anatomies to helping to treat patients suffering from a wide variety of conditions. But it is AR that is really beginning to make its mark on the industry. AR is widely used across the healthcare industry for a variety of applications including medical training, patient education and care management, pre-surgical assessment, minimally invasive surgery and rehabilitation. A recent report by Goldman-Sachs predicted that by 2025, the AR healthcare market would total almost $5.1 billion, with an estimated 3.4 million users throughout the world.

While VR results in a more immersive experience, AR provides the user with more freedom because the user doesn’t necessarily need to wear an unyielding headset. Indeed, with AR, users can often pick up content from a social media tool like YouTube and view it using their phone and a Google Cardboard. Therefore, it also provides pharma marketers with further possibilities for use. There are two principal ways in which pharmaceutical companies can benefit from using AR to market their products. The first is by leveraging it as a means to help educate both patients and physicians in a more engaging way, and the second is by enhancing the sales process and empowering sales reps to provide a next-generation customer experience.

Educating digitally engaged customers

The use of visual imagery to communicate complex information is AR’s most effective feature and the reason why, if used intelligently, it can stimulate a better learning process for consumers seeking to access product materials. For example, it’s usual for patients to feel overwhelmed by the choice of medicines that are available to purchase in the pharmacy or supermarket, particularly when they’re also faced with an abundance of direct to consumer advertising. If they use the product incorrectly it could result in customer dissatisfaction, or more alarmingly, an adverse event. AR can help bridge the education gap by allowing pharma companies to engage with and educate them in a more transformative way. AR enabled smartphone apps and wearable devices allow the possibility for patients to interact with products and find out more about their suitability before they purchase. Pharma companies can guide patients and clearly show them how to take a specific medicine while reinforcing the product benefits in a visual way.

One example of this comes from Pfizer who in 2017 used AR technology to help answer patients’ questions about their product ThermaCare at the point of purchase. Using an AR smartphone app consumers could access an interactive 3D model to pinpoint their pain areas and learn more about which ThermaCare product options were best suited to relieve their type of pain.

With regards to physicians, a recent study found that more than 50% would like to use AR technology to learn about new treatments and conditions. With that in mind, pharma companies can use the power of AR to innovatively communicate new clinical data and demonstrate outcomes to physicians in a much more memorable format. A contextualised experience using AR can help physicians to understand and appreciate the benefits of new products and inform them of how best to administer medicines or perform certain procedures.

In 2013, Boehringer Ingelheim, an early adopter of AR, developed an app to engage stakeholders and educate them on the functionalities and mechanisms of their new ‘Spiriva Respimat’ inhaler device. The tablet app used 3D content, animations and intuitive gesture based controls to educate physicians on the products’ properties. The application was a global first for BI, receiving praise amongst leading industry physicians for its highly-immersive and interactive user experience.

Empowering the salesforce

For medical sales reps who often need to compete for a physician’s time and attention, the ability to quickly demonstrate the benefits of a new product using AR sales aids can be hugely beneficial and provide an important point of differentiation in an increasingly competitive landscape. For example, sales reps using AR can visualise a 3D organ on a physician’s desk, demonstrate the effects their products will have, and showcase important attributes that are different from other treatments that are available. Communicating in this way is crucial, especially as HCPs' expectation for digital engagement increases. Finding innovative ways to use AR technology in order to engage with HCPs can serve as a true differentiator and help foster more personal relationships.

Examples of pharmaceutical product demos are rarely found in the public domain. However, a similar case study comes from Alcon, who in 2016 capitalised on the growing excitement surrounding AR. They developed an app for their sales force who had expressed how difficult it was to convince cataract surgeons how the large Alcon LenSx Laser would fit within in their surgical suite without going through the costly exercise of shipping in a demo unit. Seeing an opportunity to differentiate themselves using an innovative new technology, they created an AR application that would run on the reps’ tablets. By placing a small image target on the floor, the tablet would display a hyper realistic, true-to-size 3D model of the LenSx Laser. The surgeon could then accurately evaluate the equipment’s size within their own surgical environment by walking around the AR version of the unit and exploring it from any angle.

In summary, many pharmaceutical companies who were early adopters of AR are already reaping the rewards of implementing it across their product marketing strategies. Using AR they’ve been able to distinguish themselves from the rest of the market and strengthen brand awareness. Going forward this is will create a stronger bond with their customers and lead to greater brand loyalty.

Nevertheless, as with any new technological advancement there will be an initial reluctance to change. Adoption of emerging technologies and new forms of education can be slow in the healthcare industry, especially if a substantial upfront investment is required. However, an increasing familiarity with the technology will continue to drive adoption of AR, resulting in it becoming a common reality in healthcare marketing.

In the final part of this series I’ll explore the opportunities for using both VR and AR technology in healthcare market research.

Part 1 - Game changer? The role of virtual reality in healthcare »

Part 3 - Can virtual reality revolutionise the way we conduct healthcare market research? »

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