Can you hear me, pharma? Voice-enabled apps are on the rise—and please don't freak out about privacy

Alexa
Amazon's Alexa is one of the emerging voice-enabled artificial intelligence devices that pharma is exploring to better reach patients. (Getty/canbedone)

The potential for voice-enabled apps in pharma is just beginning to be realized. Think drug adherence and symptom tracking, or injection tutorials and direct reports to healthcare providers.

But will privacy and regulation prove to be stumbling blocks? Not necessarily, says one voice AI expert. Voice channels are no different than any other connected digital media when it comes to privacy concerns, said Eric Turkington, vice president of strategic partnerships at voice AI specialist agency RAIN. That means, as with any consumer technology, privacy should be a concern and companies should ensure personal data are handled carefully, but voice apps shouldn't raise new concerns.

“I don’t mean to suggest privacy is not a concern in voice. I think it’s a concern universally when it comes to technology, but there are media stories that overhype the risk of what it is in voice compared to other digital technologies in our lives,” he said.

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As with other social media and technology, consumers will have to weigh the risk with the benefit. Voice is still emerging in pharma, of course, but there are benefits to the technology. Patients with chronic diseases could use voice-enabled AI to more easily track symptoms, prescriptions, diet, exercise and questions by just speaking. Voice can also be used for tutorials and instructions, as well as serve as another way for patients and caregivers to connect to healthcare providers.

RAIN has worked with Fortune 100 companies including Nike and Starbucks, but it’s also worked with Pfizer and several other smaller pharma companies. For Pfizer Consumer Healthcare, the agency created a flash briefing—that is, pieces of audio content people add to listen to as part of a daily roundup—with health tips. In this case, it was “It’s Your Wellness. Own It.” from Pfizer Consumer Healthcare, which offers a daily dose of tips on topics from better sleep and diet to quick new ways to exercise. Turkington said it's a good example that other pharma companies could follow in using information and content it already has to create new voice-enabled distribution.

The agency also worked with a pharma company to prototype an injection tutorial. That tutorial never went to market, but the step-by-step guide on how to administer an injection could work across many conditions. RAIN also created a beyond-the-pill voice game for a pharma company specifically meant for children with a rare disease who had physical challenges.

According to Turkington, pharma companies are extremely interested in voice as a new channel conduit to patients, caregivers and physicians.

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As with many new technologies, voice app progress has been slow in pharma and healthcare. Amazon, which is further ahead in healthcare with its skills than Google is with its actions, for instance, is still doing invitation-only HIPAA-compliant skill testing. It currently has six running, including Livongo Blood Sugar Lookup and Express Scripts prescription tracking.

However, it also has more general healthcare industry skills that are beginning to encroach on the pharma space. Amazon recently debuted an Alexa feature with Giant Eagle pharmacy that allows users to track and refill medications by asking, "Alexa, manage my medications."

With 25% of households already owning smart speakers and another jump likely with the holiday buying season, pharma companies should be thinking about and experimenting with ways to use voice-enabled AI, Turkington said.

“As a means of communication, voice can be a really powerful and seamless way of connecting,” he said.

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