Last year, pharmaceutical company GSK created a mobile app to help people give up smoking, educating them about how nicotine works and using game dynamics to reward users with coupons for NiQuitin products.

Dominic Marchant, managing director of DJM PAN, a creative agency in the healthcare space, explains: “Pharma is having to adapt to a more digital-first means of communication simply because its audience is more digital.”

In 2014, digital natives outnumbered digital immigrants in the physician community, while 80 per cent of people went online to look for health information. Technology – from apps to virtual reality (VR) to augmented reality (AR) and holographic technology – has an important role to play in engaging and educating both consumers and healthcare professionals. It also has the ability to simplify often complex products.

 

 

 

As Sharad Kumar, co-founder of holographic services company Virtual Presence, says: “Often scientific data is difficult to understand, so 3D technology helps marketing departments to explain data through visualization with holograms.”

Virtual Presence’s holographic technology is currently only used for medical exhibitions – Pfizer, for example, has previously adopted it to demonstrate a treatment for strokes at a World Heart Federation conference – but there is potential. Kumar says: “Holography allows key opinion leaders and medical specialists to be available in multiple locations simultaneously.”

He adds that responsive holograms are likely to also be used to inexpensively diagnose conditions such as diabetes and cardiac function in the hopefully near future.

Digital and social media agency Orbital Media specializes in developing VR and AR for healthcare brands, and its chief executive Peter Brady says that while it is early days, the opportunities are clear. “Take VR for example. An immersive simulation supplied by a brand treatment can help a healthcare professional experience a migraine for themselves, while creating better understanding of how the treatment works within the body. This enhanced understanding and added value can market a treatment, while complying with the strict regulatory framework.”

Julian Wakeley, Young & Rubicam Group’s director of partnerships and platforms for EMEA and AsiaPac, is also championing the use of such technology in healthcare marketing. “VR and AR provide immense opportunities to connect and share experiences or new insights and data between experts,” he says.

For clients, Wakeley has seen AR used to explain complex concepts of various modes of action for patients as well as physicians. “In several cases, we’ve provided physical AR triggers for physicians to show patients how depression works on the brain, and how asthma medications work, and the reasons it’s important to dose correctly.”

Last year, pharmaceutical company Bayer deployed AR to communicate with healthcare professionals, working with DJM PAN to help promote a treatment for Wet AMD (Age Related Macular Degeneration) and Diabetic Macular Oedema. Physicians at an industry event were given a headset containing a smartphone with an app programmed to simulate some of the effects of poor vision.

“By allowing the doctors to see the effects and better understand how this might affect their patients’ quality of life, Bayer provided a link between the physician and the patient like no other,” says Marchant. A follow-up survey suggested that 90 per cent of respondents found the Google Cardboard experience engaging, while 75 per cent found the content informative and 80 per cent found the experience memorable.

As new technology matures and the benefits are proven, it will doubtlessly be deployed in more consumer-facing healthcare marketing. As Brady says, “AR and VR can be used to simulate and demonstrate the intricacies and complexities of a person’s condition and how an ongoing treatment will work within the body. Better patient understanding of their condition and how a treatment works are proven to deliver enhanced patient outcomes and elevated sales.”

But there is a way to go as the highly regulated and cautious healthcare industry finds its way with new technologies. Marchant believes there is a lack of innovation within mobile in the healthcare space, particularly compared to the sophistication of apps in the fitness sector, while Aino Hanttu, who formerly led user experience at Silicon Valley startup Better Doctor and who is now service design lead at digital services agency Futurice, sees an opportunity: “The current relationship that pharmaceutical companies have with consumers is very reactive and sporadic.”

Hanttu believes the use of digital, and specifically apps, provides the chance for such companies to create a valuable relationship with their customers. “For example, if you suffer from hayfever, you will suffer from this at varying levels throughout the year. I can see a huge amount of value in having an app to manage the condition and symptoms, to help reduce the impact this has on your everyday life. The key for pharma companies is discovering the problem worth solving.”