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The Pulse of the Pharmaceutical Industry

AR/VR Special Feature 2019: Augmented reality finds its stride

Written by: | | Dated: Sunday, August 11th, 2019


By Arno Sosna, general manager, CRM, Veeva Systems


As augmented reality (AR) technology continues to mature, more life science companies are expanding its use, enabling a new class of innovative content for field teams to bring treatments to light. Whether demonstrating a new therapy, showing how a new medical device works, or providing details about a complex disease state, AR can improve customer engagement, education, and brand differentiation.

Arno Sosna

Augmented reality works by projecting virtual images onto the physical world with the help of a mobile device – most commonly a tablet or smartphone – to create an interactive hybrid environment. Most likely you have experimented with the technology in your personal life, perhaps without even realizing it. If you have ever used a mobile app that helps you digitally paint your walls, decide where to place a couch, or measure physical spaces, that’s augmented reality.

The technology for AR is no longer a novelty. Today, there are thousands of AR applications supporting industries such as retail, military and defense, gaming, real estate, advertising, and education. eMarketer projects that, throughout 2019, nearly 70 million people in the United States will use AR. With tech giants such as Apple and Google investing in the devices and software that deliver AR, the technology continues to advance rapidly, consistently unlocking new use cases.


AR comes into its own for life sciences

Industry analysts predict the global AR market in healthcare to grow at a 23 percent compound annual rate between 2017 to 2023. The technology is already in use in areas such as patient and doctor education, surgical visualization, and disease simulation to enhance patient treatments and outcomes.

For example, one AR application blends data from MRI and CT scans to map a patient’s body, projecting the exact location of veins or internal organs so that medical staff can hit the mark the first time. A different application reconstructs tumors in 3D so surgeons can view X-rays in real-time to reduce radiation exposure. Another constructs 3D visuals of organs from different angles for greater precision in stitches.

Augmented reality also helps increase retention and understanding for doctors and patients by presenting complex ideas in interactive formats. For instance, one global pharmaceutical company uses a 3D heart modeling application to demonstrate the movement of medicine through the organ and its effects as part of a new treatment. Both healthcare providers (HCPs) and patients can better understand the science by seeing how it works in the body through AR.

Yan Fossat, VP of Klick Labs at Klick Health, explained that by “giving someone the ability to instantly see a disease or condition on their own skin, or enabling them to see what someone with, say, macular degeneration sees is more impactful than other forms of visual and textual representation.”

Companies have even begun to find AR applications for their research and manufacturing processes. Researchers can model cell signaling and turn different receptors on and off to visualize the downstream effects. In manufacturing, AR can be used to allow subject matter experts to virtually explore large pieces of equipment to find fixes for improved efficiency and maintenance.


Launching new products with augmented reality

One of the most impactful areas for AR for life sciences companies is in the commercialization of new products. As more complex therapies come to market, AR is proving a natural fit in helping businesses explain the complex science and unique delivery mechanisms involved. Augmented reality empowers brand teams and content firms to create detailed, immersive experiences that better engage with HCPs, generate excitement about a new therapy, and instill greater confidence during the early phases of the commercialization process.

Satisfying HCP’s preference for digital engagement, AR provides a captivating format to present new drugs and medical devices using familiar devices as the presentation platform. It lets HCPs explore the mechanisms of new therapies that were previously prohibitive to demonstrate in a hospital or physician office due to weight, size, or security restraints.

Most importantly, AR enables life sciences companies to tell a compelling story, illustrating how a body experiences a disease and then how it reacts to the new treatment during different stages of the disease. HCPs learn more clearly how a new product can help patients throughout the progression of the disease state so they can communicate this to patients.

“There just hasn’t been any other medium in the past that allows interactive modeling live in real time,” says Sanjiv Mody, CEO and founder of PIXACORE. “With the right content and use case, AR helps pharmaceutical field teams get more than the average two or three minutes with a doctor.”


Better HCP engagement and deeper understanding

AR provides a more interactive and engaging experience than traditional 3D modeling for greater retention of complex concepts. Now, instead of hearing or reading about results from a new drug or device, HCPs can virtually interact with it to visualize the effects and practice procedures.

Field reps can either hold their mobile device and make their pitch, or turn over their AR-equipped iPad so the HCP can directly engage with the content. In addition to field personnel serving as facilitators, doctors can take a 360-degree perspective to do a deeper dive and gain important insights about the intricacies of a molecule or medical device. The results in a more memorable experience compared to an often static, two-dimensional presentation.

However, not everything translates well into AR. The traditional formats remain the best option in certain cases. For example, dense content contained in medical journals may not be an appropriate use case for AR.

According to Mody, “Neither AR nor VR technology should be used just for the sake of novelty when other media could tell the story better and make a more meaningful impact.”


Getting started with AR

Creating AR applications requires content creation, deployment, and maintenance supported by dedicated resources. Some cloud-based enterprise software solutions now embed AR capabilities into customer relationship management (CRM) processes so that users can start to leverage AR in a more efficient way, as they would with any detailing content. With AR capabilities available through existing, familiar software, life sciences companies can begin to experiment with the technology through smaller pilot program across channels, in a controlled environment with a limited audience. Cloud-based AR applications also enable life sciences companies to seamlessly capture and learn from the effects of AR on customers, learn, and then share those insights with agency partners.

“A controlled environment is the best way to create content, test it, get feedback and make refinements. Once you have the AR application carefully programmed, introduce it in a few test-kitchens,” Mody says. “Like any new technology rollout, take measured steps with AR initiatives, and learn from structured use cases before a full-blown launch. A roadmap is imperative to success.”

As AR continues to rapidly mature, more life sciences companies should consider its use as an impactful tool to communicate, educate, and engage customers and patients on innovations that improve brand preference and patient outcomes.


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