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The Pulse of the Pharmaceutical Industry

AR/VR Special Feature 2019 – Game changer: The role of immersive technologies in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries

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


By Harrison Gaiger, marketing manager at Research Partnership.


The next decade promises to be an exciting time for science and innovation. Technological advancements are being made on a daily basis and many of these have the potential to directly impact our everyday lives. In fact, technology is changing at such a rate that it can often seem difficult to keep up. One advancement with the potential to change how we interact with the world is Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR/AR). Since the launch of top-end devices such as the Oculus Rift headset and many simpler, more affordable designs such as the Google Cardboard, interest in VR/AR has sky-rocketed. Coupled with advancements in smartphone technology it is now possible for larger numbers of people to experience VR/AR.

Harrison Gaiger

While gaming and entertainment may be the first things that come to mind when thinking about VR/AR, one of the most important developments is its use in healthcare. VR/AR is not only allowing medical students and seasoned professionals to test and learn new skills in a safe and immersive environment; but is helping to treat patients in new and effective ways. In terms of the business applications, VR/AR is especially effective for marketing, because it creates an opportunity for companies to establish a strong emotional connection among target consumers and their products. Two key areas where immersive technologies can be effective are in market research and product marketing.


Healthcare market research

Given the powerful impact of VR/AR technology and its expanding applications within the industry, it is easy to imagine the many ways in which VR/AR can be utilized to develop, research, and evaluate product and service innovations. Instead of simply observing how respondents behave, pharma now has the ability to understand the reasons why with greater clarity. VR/AR technology presents researchers with an opportunity to study customers’ behavior in more depth than ever before and can provide insights that complement those gathered using traditional techniques. The following examples are just some of the ways in which researchers can leverage VR/AR to elicit deeper insights.

Device testing: Using VR/AR it is possible to gain feedback on new product concepts, and identify what respondents like and dislike about devices earlier on in the development process. Instead of building and distributing full-scale prototypes to research venues around the world at great expense, manufacturers can present new devices and design concepts with VR/AR using digital prototypes. Wearing headsets, respondents can see and handle the devices just as if the physical versions were in front of them. Respondents can then review the different design elements and give a comprehensive assessment. Usability testing of devices can also go beyond interaction with the interface. With VR/AR, researchers have the ability to test the effects of using devices in real-world environments and use that information to predict future usability issues. For example, researchers can safely test the self-administration of insulin or epinephrine using auto-injector pens in a range of scenarios, such as busy public spaces where there are crowds of people, loud noises and a variety of other distractions that might make it difficult to use the device safely. This rapidly growing technique for device testing is already being utilized by several companies to streamline product design, enhance user experience research, save on development costs, and increase overall quality.

Projective research: One of the major drawbacks of using traditional methodologies is the inability to create a realistic test environment. Too often issues of cost or inconvenience place respondents in sterile and unimaginative facilities behind two-way mirrors, and not out in the real environments that bring needed context to the research. VR/AR can help to overcome these barriers, lowering the operational costs while offering an almost real-world experience. For example, VR/AR can be used to transport physicians into the lives of the patient – allowing them to experience their struggles to complete daily tasks whilst living with chronic conditions. Using this research can build empathy by helping physicians to understand their patients’ lives and decision-making processes. Challenging physicians with the patients’ perspective allows marketers to enrich their research into the patient experience and form a more comprehensive picture of the patient journey, and highlight opportunities to improve outcomes.

Observational research: Instead of talking through people’s memories of an experience after it has happened, researchers can take an ethnographic approach by using observational techniques to understand behaviors as they happen in the real world. However, this can be a very lengthy, time consuming and often impractical process. Where it is not feasible to observe respondents in this way, VR/AR provides researchers with the opportunity to closely emulate real-world experiences. A key example of how this technique can be beneficial for pharma is in assessing the communication between healthcare practitioners (HCPs) and patients. By placing HCPs into a virtually simulated consultation room with a virtual patient voiced by an actor – or vice versa, researchers can act as a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ to observe the respondent’s journey in real-time, see how they engage and interact in various scenarios, and collect detailed behavioral data.

Enhancing traditional research methods: Researchers can also enhance traditional methodologies such as surveys and focus groups if they incorporate VR/AR elements, or the principles of, into their study design. For example, VR/AR can be used as a creative way to increase response rates to quantitative surveys, which many researchers will agree have been declining in recent years – leading them to seek out new ways of increasing engagement by following the principles of behavioral economic theory. One way this could work would involve interactive surveys appearing in mid-air while respondents wear a set of ‘smart glasses’.

Immersive research company Gorilla in the Room recently conducted a study into the use of VR/AR within a quantitative commercial survey. They found that the use of VR/AR significantly adds to the survey experience in terms of enjoyment and engagement. Over 40 percent of their respondents stated that they found the experience ‘very enjoyable’, compared to 25 percent of respondents who participated in a standard online survey. Their results suggest that the uniqueness of a VR/AR experience may help engage respondents in the survey process and combat declining response rates.

There are also several online research companies such as Click-room that offer virtual facilities for conducting focus groups with geographically dispersed respondents, giving researchers, end-clients and other stakeholders the opportunity to view the virtual focus groups live – much like a market research online community (MROC). While the platform is not exactly a traditional VR/AR experience, it allows respondents from around the world to meet as avatars in a virtual space where they can interact, build rapport with each other in their own time, and share their thoughts on a given topic. Much like MROCs, virtual groups are appealing to researchers because they allow them to connect with respondents from around the world as well as hard-to-reach ones such as those with rare conditions. In addition, they lower the costs associated with conducting focus groups and allow respondents to remain anonymous.


Product marketing

There are two principal ways in which pharma can benefit from using VR/AR to market their products. The first is by leveraging immersive technologies as a means to help educate both patients and physicians in a more engaging way, and the second is by enhancing the sales process and empowering reps to provide a next-generation customer experience.

Educating digitally engaged customers: The use of visual imagery to communicate complex information is VR/AR’s most effective feature and the reason why, if used intelligently, it can stimulate a better learning process for consumers seeking to access product materials. For example, it’s usual for patients to feel overwhelmed by the choice of medicines that are available to purchase in the pharmacy or supermarket, particularly when they’re also faced with an abundance of direct-to-consumer advertising. If they use the product incorrectly, it could result in dissatisfaction, or more alarmingly, an adverse event. VR/AR can help bridge the education gap by allowing pharma to engage with and educate them in a more transformative way. VR/AR enabled apps and wearable devices allow the possibility for patients to interact with products and find out more about their suitability. Pharma companies can guide patients and clearly show them how to take a specific medicine while reinforcing the product benefits in a visual way. One example of this comes from Pfizer who in 2017 used VR/AR to help answer patients’ questions about their product, ThermaCare, at the point of purchase. Using a VR/AR app consumers could access an interactive 3D model to pinpoint their pain areas and learn more about which product options were best suited to relieve their type of pain.

With regards to physicians, a recent study found that more than 50 percent would like to use VR/AR to learn about new treatments and conditions. With that in mind, pharma can use the power of the technology to innovatively communicate new clinical data and demonstrate outcomes to physicians in a much more memorable format. A contextualized experience using VR/AR can help physicians to understand and appreciate the benefits of new products and inform them of how best to administer medicines or perform certain procedures. In 2013, Boehringer Ingelheim, an early adopter of VR/AR, developed an app to engage stakeholders and educate them on the functionalities and mechanisms of their new ‘Spiriva Respimat’ inhaler. The app used 3D content, animations and intuitive gesture-based controls to educate physicians on the products’ properties. The application was a global first for BI, receiving praise amongst leading industry physicians for its highly immersive and interactive user experience.

Empowering the salesforce: For sales reps competing for a physician’s time and attention, the ability to quickly demonstrate the benefits of a new product using VR/AR sales aids can be hugely beneficial and provide an important point of differentiation in an increasingly competitive landscape. For example, sales reps using VR/AR can visualize a 3D organ on a physician’s desk, demonstrate the effects their products will have, and showcase important attributes that are different from other treatments that are available. Communicating in this way is crucial, especially as HCPs’ expectation for digital engagement increases. Finding innovative ways to use VR/AR technology in order to engage with HCPs can serve as a true differentiator and help foster more personal relationships.

Examples of pharmaceutical product demos are rarely found in the public domain. However, a similar case study comes from Alcon, who in 2016 capitalized on the growing excitement surrounding VR/AR. Their sales force had expressed how difficult it was to convince cataract surgeons that their product, a large Alcon LenSx Laser, would fit within their surgical suite without going through the costly exercise of shipping in a demo unit. Seeing an opportunity to differentiate themselves using an innovative new technology, they created a VR/AR application that would run on the reps’ tablets. By placing a small image target on the floor, the tablet would display a hyper-realistic, true-to-size 3D model of the LenSx Laser. The surgeon could then accurately evaluate the equipment’s size within their own surgical environment by walking around the VR/AR version of the unit and exploring it from any angle.



As exciting as this all may seem, some questions remain. Firstly, with regard to market research, how can we be sure that responses to computer-generated stimuli are natural, honest and unbiased? Although research into VR/AR suggests that people do tend to respond realistically to virtual events and situations, it also suggests that wearing headsets can cause physical effects such as increased heart rate and ‘cyber sickness’ – both of which may adversely affect respondents and their answers. This is especially concerning in market research where respondents may already be living with debilitating health conditions. Furthermore, when thinking about simulated consultations, can virtual simulations ever realistically replicate the subtleties of eye contact and other visual cues that occur when sitting face-to-face with another real-life person? Finally, will a potentially vulnerable patient feel as comfortable talking to a virtual physician as they would a real one? Perhaps as technologies advance, some of these obstacles will be removed, as the virtual reality becomes almost as authentic as the real one.

When it comes to product marketing, as with any new technological advancement, there will be an initial reluctance to change. Adoption of emerging technologies and new forms of marketing and education can be slow in the healthcare industry, especially if a substantial upfront investment is required. Nevertheless, many pharmaceutical companies who were early adopters of VR/AR are already reaping the rewards of implementing it across their product marketing strategies. Using VR/AR they’ve been able to distinguish themselves from the rest of the market and strengthen brand awareness. Going forward this will create a stronger bond with their customers and lead to greater brand loyalty.

In conclusion, the inevitable arrival of more advanced VR/AR technologies is an exciting prospect and one that could revolutionize the way we conduct healthcare market research and sell pharmaceutical products. Although VR/AR has yet to become completely mainstream, as the immersive quality of VR/AR reaches its full potential, increasing familiarity with the technology will continue to drive adoption, resulting in it becoming a more common reality in healthcare marketing.


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