Ask and get health answers: Will 2018 be a tipping point for pharma voice assistants?

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Amazon Echo's Alexa is one of the up-and-coming voice assistants being embraced by pharma companies to build direct relationships with patients and HCPs.

Alexa, order my medicine. Siri, did I take my pill today? As the role of a voice assistant—and trust factor by consumers—continues to grow, those are just the kind of health-related questions consumers may ask in the near future.

For pharma, which is just beginning to address voice assistants, the forthcoming opportunity is twofold. Patients will be talking to Amazon's Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple's Siri about which drugs to take and their side effects, and setting up reminders to stick to dosing schedules.

The other audience is physicians. According to DRG Digital, the voice assistant trend is already taking hold with HCPs: Almost one-third of doctors are already using Amazon Echo voice services or electronic health records with voice capabilities.

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Still, pharma may find the bigger opportunity—and challenge—in consumers' homes, where they can potentially tap into patients' lives as a trusted treatment partner. Pharma’s typical outreach to patients through email, TV advertising or digital marketing has been largely intrusive. With voice assistants, users are reaching out themselves. And that interaction offers an opportunity for drugmakers to integrate into the home system and earn consumers' trust by offering solid advice in a friendly voice.

“The voice assistant by nature becomes a personality in the home,” said Chris Cullman, head of digital at Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide. “… There’s a huge opportunity to extend what was traditionally customer relationship marketing into the home through the voice of this trusted personality that’s already there.”

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How might drugmakers drive changes in behavior? Offer reminders to take medication or set up appointments, for instance, Cullman noted. Engage in a back-and-forth about a specific condition, for another, or help people monitor their own conditions, symptoms and vitals.

Some of the skills already available on Amazon’s platform include Lenovo Health’s virtual patient care, WebMD’s Healthcare Q&A and HealthTap’s Dr. A.I. virtual physician. But pharma isn’t far behind. Forward-thinkers like Merck are already crowdsourcing ideas; the drugmaker sponsored the Alexa Diabetes Challenge this year to generate solutions for tech that can help patients manage the disease. Expect more voice apps and ideas in 2018 and beyond.