In terms of technical innovation, society’s driving force has always been to increase efficiency.  

We aim to cut out the middle-man, remove waste, and be able to consume things quicker and easier—whether that be books, movies, transportation, music, or information.

One such innovation that has had a rebirth as of late is the chatbot. The chatbot as we know it has been around for about twenty years, but it is now repackaged as artificial intelligence with fancy new names like Siri, Google Home, or Alexa. 

Chatbots, in their simplest form, are programs that simulate human interaction through typing or speech, complete tasks, and/or provide information that is accessible over the internet or in their database. Chatbot software typically consists of a search function, stock responses via workflows, and some form of machine learning, which allows the chatbot to provide more relevant responses based on previous interactions.

Eighteen years ago, since the early days of dial-up internet, we used chatbots such as SmarterChild. Then, in 2002, AmericaOnline introduced us to Zoe, an “interactive agent” or programmed chat “buddy”. We could ask Zoe questions about the weather, stock quotes, or movie times. “She” would look up the answers on the internet and would respond to us in plain English. Zoe couldn’t turn on our lights or handle other internet of things (IoT) challenges, but she could tell you the score of last night’s football game.While chatbots have been around since the early days of the internet, as technology advances and more of the touchpoints of our lives become interconnected, the utilization opportunities of chatbots are virtually endless. There are several areas where chatbots currently provide value. A significant number of level-1 customer service interactions are completed through chatbots; they handle queries like simple Q&A and shipment tracking. According to Business Insider magazine, 85% of customer interactions will be managed without a human by 2020, and chatbots are expected to be the number one consumer application of AI over the next five years.

Chatbots are fully customizable and can be developed for all types of needs. Multi-task chatbots such as Mezi by American Express are used as a personal travel assistant for all your travel needs, while single-purpose chatbots such as MONTY act as a wine sommelier

Chatbots are easily scalable and aren’t constrained to typical business days or 9-to-5 hours—they are always “open” and available to help. In addition, they are portable and do not have to live in just one place. For example, your chatbot can live on your website, but could also be placed on Facebook, allowing for users to find your “bot” without having to come directly to your site.

There are several different opportunities that chatbots present—improving users’ experiences, educating users, driving sales, increasing the time users spend engaging with a brand, and gaining insights on customers. Chatbots are being used for these purposes and more across all industries, including the pharmaceutical industry.

From the first pharma chatbot, MSD Salute Bot by MSD Italia (a division of Merck), to now, there are dozens of chatbots in the market. The majority of current and emerging use cases appear to be patient focused and are a mix of both patient-only (apps that help a patient track and make sense of health information) and patient-clinician (apps that connect the two groups, for diagnosis, treatment, etc.) applications.

Chatbots have value in the clinical space as well. Often, physicians and nurses need to understand the pathogenesis, pathophysiology, and/or progression of a specific disease. This content is sometimes available across various disease state awareness sites, but chatbots can make that content readily available in a faster, more user-friendly format.

Areas where pharmaceutical companies can take advantage of this technology include:

  • Disease Education – A disease-specific chatbot can answer all types of patient questions about a specific disease. Educating these patients can help prime them to start with a specific treatment option or introduce them to a patient support community
  • Brand Education – Allow patients or physicians to receive relevant information about the brand in order to prescribe or start treatment. The information would include access to disease education, tolerability, dosing, efficacy, adverse events, financial assistance, etc.
  • Patient Adherence – This chatbot can remind patients when treatment should be administered and how best to administer it. It can provide assurance on side effects by telling patients what to look out for and how best to manage them

As with all pharma digital marketing programs, there are many challenges getting chatbots approved through medical-legal review. Based on ambiguous guidance from the FDA, internal guidelines for each pharmaceutical company will vary. From the early days of social and digital pharma marketing, from tactics such as email, to innovative portals such as Novartis’ CML Earth, the challenges have been the same – how do you handle adverse event reporting, how do you handle patient/consumer privacy, and how do you keep on label with fair balance and ISI placement? All of these issues are resolvable, but the legal, medical, and commercial teams have to work together and be able to move quickly.

Combine navigating medical-legal review with a high degree of difficulty in calculating ROI, and chatbot development is not for the faint of heart. However, if a chatbot meets your brand’s strategic objectives and is done correctly, it will make your brand stand out from your competitors and add significant value, particularly for payers, patients, and prescribers.