Tech connection: To reach patients, pharma adds AI, machine learning and more to its digital toolbox

digital health
Direct consumer connections to pharma are on the rise thanks to digital technologies. (Ridofranz/Getty Images)

Pharma’s desire to build direct relationships with patients isn’t new. But even as rapidly changing technology makes those connections more possible than ever, it's also making them more important.

Opt-in health apps. 24/7 call centers that depend on machine learning. Voice-enabled artificial intelligence that helps manage chronic conditions. Digital therapeutics with automated reporting. They're just a few of the tech tools becoming indispensable in pharma marketing—and not just because of the value those tools offer patients.

It's also because the data and analytics those provide are important as pharma companies shift to more patient-centric businesses.


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Astellas, for instance, hired its first senior vice president of patient centricity from Sanofi, where he spent eight years creating a system that integrates patient and physician perspectives into the drug discovery and development process.

Emerging digital tools have also become important marketing devices that can convey pharma “personality.”

Take Reckitt Benckiser’s Mucinex Halloween TikTok videos. The brand translated its zombie-themed TV ad campaign for new product NightShift into a challenger TikTok promotion called #TooSickToBeSick—and racked up more than 400 million views in just five days. Almost as importantly, it drummed up credibility with a young hip audience of influencers.

Another example is Eisai’s voice-enabled play and meditation skill called Ella the Jellyfish, created for children with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and their families. The skill can sing, play games, tell stories and offer guided meditations and offers friendly support for a challenging rare disease.

And although the word relationship is often used in regard to pharma’s emerging connections with patients, that may not be the exactly right term, said Syneos Health Managing Director of Insights and Innovation Leigh Householder.

“It’s not a relationship in that it’s what loyalty looks like in other categories—like airlines,” she said. “In pharma, it looks more like what you see from really good health insurers who are able to know enough about you to find those moments when a nudge or reconnect or their next product would be very useful in your life. Instead of relationship, maybe we could just say ‘person-level relevance.’”

Whatever it’s called, the successes creating those connections means the industry should expect even more digital tools and optimization from pharma in 2020.

Kendalle Burlin O’Connell, chief operating officer at life science nonprofit MassBio, said, “The rise of mobile apps has created a new age of patient engagement that I expect will grow in 2020. We’ll see increased app development from both providers and manufacturers to track medical adherence, relay updates between patients and physicians regarding care, and disseminate real-time data that captures the full patient journey.”

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