The empathy isn’t virtual
How we used VR and AR to create connections between physicians and patients
By Brent Scholz, VP, executive creative director at Intouch Solutions
Just as brand.com websites were in the 1990s and social media was a decade ago, virtual and augmented reality is now the latest cutting-edge trendy technology du jour for healthcare marketers. We dream about it, write about it, talk about it with each other at conferences, opine in the trade press about its potential impact … but few of us, at least so far, have actually used it in the field. Here at my agency, Intouch Solutions, we are constantly researching and testing new technologies – our offices are full of Amazon Echos, 3-D printers, and other tech-driven gadgets on which we’ve experimented at one time or another. Until recently we had worked with VR and AR without deploying them into actual client work – as with any technology, we didn’t want to pitch VR for its own sake, only when it matched with the right concept for the right brand. And we realized very early in our experiments that VR and AR could be a fantastic vehicle to project empathy when such a pairing could be found.
Our first client VR adventure began when we found that we had exactly such a pairing with Eylea, a product indicated for a number of vision-related disorders and marketed by our client Regeneron. The need fit the tool just about perfectly; what could be better suited for the emerging VR technologies than a campaign focused on the eyes? Degenerative eye disorders are already an emotional issue for physicians and patients to handle; physicians have to communicate with patients who are hearing for the first time that their vision is deteriorating, that it might get worse, that they could lose their sight. There aren’t many messages a physician can deliver that are more emotionally traumatic than that one. So building empathy among physicians and caregivers who must communicate with patients in such situations was a goal of the Eylea brand team from the beginning. Add to that the natural link between VR and vision, and we had ourselves a match. With the actual technology behind VR beginning to catch up to our daydreams, we thought we could create what might be called an empathy tool – a tool that could show physicians and caregivers in an emotionally impactful way exactly what their frightened patients were experiencing.
Of course, VR had then (and has now) hardly been used at all in the healthcare marketing context. So we decided to assemble a “dream team” of experts to help pull this off. Luckily for us, we already had a relationship with a local production company called Bark Productions, and they had a relationship with Bruce Branit, a special effects expert who has worked on TV shows like Breaking Bad, Fringe, Lost, and Westworld. So with help from Bark and Mr. Branit, we began our crash course in VR filming.
Once all the technology had been sorted out – including a custom-built 360-degree VR “camera” (four cameras, really) that looked like something out of Terminator – we filmed and “stitched” together three “stories” – one for each of Eylea’s indications. For wet AMD it was a birthday party; your family has gathered to celebrate you, but your vision is distorted by a circular black blur. For diabetic macular edema, black splotches interfere with the experience of a lunch date with your wife and another couple. And for macular edema following retinal vein occlusion, you’re having a picnic lunch in the park with your wife – accompanied by blurring and twisting distortions. Within each story the user can look around in any direction and encounter all sorts of common visual stimuli – all interrupted by the symptoms of the various disorders. The idea behind each story was to place the user into the virtual shoes of a patient experiencing one of the eye disorders that Eylea treats, in a way that clinical data or even two-dimensional visual materials could not – to show the disorders’ actual impact on personal experiences and independence.
But as impactful as the “stories” turned out to be, we wanted to add a component that would make the experience more open-ended and personal. Thus the step from virtual reality to augmented reality; we created a “live mode” in which the user could experience her own actual surroundings a la Pokemon with the addition of the visual distortion effects in real time.
The key to all this, and the reason why we chose VR/AR in the first place, is the emotional connection. Most physician-facing communications focus on everything but the emotional connection, and often rightly so; the clinical data and the science are at the top of most physicians’ lists of what matters when making healthcare recommendations for their patients. But degenerative eye conditions just aren’t like most other disorders; they have a potentially devastating impact on the day-to-day lives of patients, on their ability to enjoy the little moments that most of us take for granted, that other disorders do not. And that’s the message that VR was uniquely suited to communicate. When a physician, looking through the eyes of our virtual patient, can’t see the writing on the birthday card that his granddaughter gave to him, the message skips right past the logical, medical part of his brain down to the human, empathetic level; the physician feels, just for a moment, what his patients feel. And when he looks at his own desk in “live mode” and can’t see the writing on his notes, he feels what a diagnosis of macular degeneration might mean to him personally. That is the emotional connection, a marketer’s most important goal, and the most difficult to achieve.
Important note: I’m not just speculating about that emotional connection. After six months in development, In My Eyes, the VR/AR app that we built for Regeneron, was deployed to the company’s sales force a short while ago, and the response has been impressive. For example, one rep told us, “I’ve been able to have some good discussions while letting techs and staff try out the In My Eyes app. Most of their comments are similar in nature. For instance, ‘Wow, I can’t imagine walking around trying to deal with this type of blurriness or spotty vision.’ I use the experience to remind staff how important they are to patients. I explain that we know how frustrating it can be filling out insurance paperwork and seeking reimbursement, et cetera. I emphasize the fact that without their help patients cannot experience better vision.” HCPs are asking about having versions of the app for their clinics. And Regeneron itself is so pleased about the app and its impact that they’ve allowed us at the agency to talk about it publicly, something that few pharmaceutical companies allow their partner agencies to do.
So are we at Intouch full converts to the faith of VR? Yes, absolutely, but with one important codicil. In the recent history of healthcare marketing, it has not been uncommon to see enthusiasm for a particular new communications technology leading to the technology becoming an end in itself, rather than a careful choice of media that best suits a particular idea – remember when brand managers were all telling their partner agencies, “I need a Facebook page right now!”, irrespective of whether their brands were suited for Facebook? But alongside the right brand and the right message, VR and AR have a power to create empathy that no other medium can match.