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Article: Game changer - The role of immersive technologies in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries

Harrison Gaiger, August 2019

Published in Med Ad News

The next decade promises to be an exciting time for science and innovation. Technological advancements are being made on a daily basis and many of these have the potential to directly impact our everyday lives. In fact, technology is changing at such a rate that it can often seem difficult to keep up. One advancement with the potential to change how we interact with the world is Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR/AR). Since the launch of top-end devices such as the Oculus Rift headset and many simpler, more affordable designs such as the Google Cardboard, interest in VR/AR has sky-rocketed. Coupled with advancements in smartphone technology it is now possible for larger numbers of people to experience VR/AR.

virtual reality shutterstock_1088651612While gaming and entertainment may be the first things that come to mind when thinking about VR/AR, one of the most important developments is its use in healthcare. VR/AR is not only allowing medical students and seasoned professionals to test and learn new skills in a safe and immersive environment; but is helping to treat patients in new and effective ways.

In terms of the business applications, VR/AR is especially effective for marketing, because it creates an opportunity for companies to establish a strong emotional connection among target consumers and their products. Two key areas where immersive technologies can be effective are in market research and product marketing.

Healthcare market research

Given the powerful impact of VR/AR technology and its expanding applications within the industry, it is easy to imagine the many ways in which VR/AR can be utilised to develop, research, and evaluate product and service innovations. Instead of simply observing how respondents behave, pharma now has the ability to understand the reasons why with greater clarity. VR/AR technology presents researchers with an opportunity to study customers’ behaviour in more depth than ever before and can provide insights that complement those gathered using traditional techniques. The following examples are just some of the ways in which researchers can leverage VR/AR to elicit deeper insights.

Device testing: Using VR/AR it is possible to gain feedback on new product concepts, and identify what respondents like and dislike about devices earlier on in the development process. Instead of building and distributing full-scale prototypes to research venues around the world at great expense, manufacturers can present new devices and design concepts with VR/AR using digital prototypes. Wearing headsets, respondents can see and handle the devices just as if the physical versions were in front of them. Respondents can then review the different design elements and give a comprehensive assessment. Usability testing of devices can also go beyond interaction with the interface. With VR/AR, researchers have the ability to test the effects of using devices in real-world environments and use that information to predict future usability issues. For example, researchers can safely test the self-administration of insulin or epinephrine using auto-injector pens in a range of scenarios, such as busy public spaces where there are crowds of people, loud noises and a variety of other distractions that might make it difficult to use the device safely. This rapidly growing technique for device testing is already being utilised by several companies to streamline product design, enhance user experience research, save on development costs, and increase overall quality.

Projective research: One of the major drawbacks of using traditional methodologies is the inability to create a realistic test environment. Too often issues of cost or inconvenience place respondents in sterile and unimaginative facilities behind two-way mirrors, and not out in the real environments that bring needed context to the research. VR/AR can help to overcome these barriers, lowering the operational costs while offering an almost real-world experience. For example, VR/AR can be used to transport physicians into the lives of the patient – allowing them to experience their struggles to complete daily tasks whilst living with chronic conditions. Using this research can build empathy by helping physicians to understand their patients’ lives and decision-making processes. Challenging physicians with the patients’ perspective allows marketers to enrich their research into the patient experience and form a more comprehensive picture of the patient journey, and highlight opportunities to improve outcomes.

Observational research: Instead of talking through people’s memories of an experience after it has happened, researchers can take an ethnographic approach by using observational techniques to understand behaviours as they happen in the real world. However, this can be a very lengthy, time consuming and often-impractical process. Where it is not feasible to observe respondents in this way, VR/AR provides researchers with the opportunity to closely emulate real-world experiences. A key example of how this technique can be beneficial for pharma is in assessing the communication between healthcare practitioners (HCPs) and patients. By placing HCPs into a virtually simulated consultation room with a virtual patient voiced by an actor - or vice versa, researchers can act as a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ to observe the respondent’s journey in real-time, see how they engage and interact in various scenarios, and collect detailed behavioural data.

Enhancing traditional research methods: Researchers can also enhance traditional methodologies such as surveys and focus groups if they incorporate VR/AR elements, or the principles of, into their study design. For example, VR/AR can be used as a creative way to increase response rates to quantitative surveys, which many researchers will agree have been declining in recent years - leading them to seek out new ways of increasing engagement by following the principles of behavioural economic theory. One way this could work would involve interactive surveys appearing in mid-air while respondents wear a set of ‘smart glasses’. Immersive research company Gorilla in the Room recently conducted a study into the use of VR/AR within a quantitative commercial survey. They found that the use of VR/AR significantly adds to the survey experience in terms of enjoyment and engagement. Over 40% of their respondents stated that they found the experience ‘very enjoyable’, compared to 25% of respondents who participated in a standard online survey. Their results suggest that the uniqueness of a VR/AR experience may help engage respondents in the survey process and combat declining response rates.

There are also several online research companies such as Click-room that offer virtual facilities for conducting focus groups with geographically dispersed respondents, giving researchers, end-clients and other stakeholders the opportunity to view the virtual focus groups live – much like a market research online community (MROC). While the platform is not exactly a traditional VR/AR experience, it allows respondents from around the world to meet as avatars in a virtual space where they can interact, build rapport with each other in their own time, and share their thoughts on a given topic. Much like MROCs, virtual groups are appealing to researchers because they allow them to connect with respondents from around the world as well as hard-to-reach ones such as those with rare conditions. In addition, they lower the costs associated with conducting focus groups and allow respondents to remain anonymous.

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