How AI is making its way into pharma and healthcare

Robot holding first aid kit AI in pharma

Will we see enhancements of AI in pharma and healthcare?

Having read many insightful articles and spoken to several experts on how artificial intelligence (AI) will significantly impact on the healthcare industry, I wanted to add to the conversation. Specifically, in terms of how advances in voice technology and chatbots will not only enhance patient care but also give pharmaceutical companies access to alternative providers and innovative services to support their brands.


Investment facts and forecasts for AI in pharma and healthcare

It’s easy to think that AI in pharma and healthcare is something that “I don’t need to worry about for a while”, “Doesn’t apply to my brand” or “Will be a while before it takes off”. However, if investment is ever a measure of how serious an industry is about making something happen, then the routine use of AI is already here. This is particularly true in the area of analysing big data to identify trends; with the ultimate goal of natural conversations with AI (‘hybrid AI’ systems) just around the corner.
From an NHS funding perspective, the Academic Health Science Networks (AHSN) and SBRI Healthcare partnership has funded 87 companies with a total of approximately £35 million since 2013 in the digital/ICT/mobile solutions category alone. One specific project in this category related to the use of a chatbot/avatar for supporting young people with mental health conditions, which attracted funding of just over £1 million.

According to McKinsey Global Institute, the funding from the private sector is significant, with internal investment in AI by large corporations estimated to be between $18 billion and $27 billion in 2016 alone, while external investment (from venture capitalists, private equity etc) accounted for $8 billion to $12 billion.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch has estimated that AI industry revenues will grow to $127 billion by 2025 from $2.1 billion in 2015, suggesting a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 51%. According to a recent report by Grand View Research, the global chatbot market alone is expected to reach $1.23 billion by 2025; a CAGR of 24.3%.

Build capability or outsource?

I was recently asked whether I think the healthcare/pharmaceutical industry will attempt to build its own in-house capability or outsource its AI needs to companies who already have the expertise.

Based on the evolution and use of outsourced services in the UK, there will be a spectrum where companies naturally sit regarding their adoption of AI. This is likely to be based on their culture, key strategic priorities, the speed at which they need to deploy the new technologies, the amount of data they hold and, of course, their budgets.


Whilst there are new and emerging roles being advertised within pharmaceutical companies, such as data scientists and outcome research scientists (which have increased by 50% from 2016 to 2017), the dream team required to build and maintain a photorealistic chatbot-driven avatar, for example, extends to people skilled in: animation, photogrammetry, mathematics, social science, neuroscience, computer science, compliance, philosophy, statistics, linguistics and semantics to name a few.

Developing, building, testing, optimising and deploying hybrid AI systems is certainly not straightforward and because there are companies who have invested significantly into this field of research and have long track records of delivering similar services in parallel industries, it would make sense to explore and engage with these organisations as a first step.

AI and customer service

In almost every article I’ve read, there is some mention of AI/chatbots and the rapid growth of voice as an interface being applied to either customer service, improving the customer experience or enhancing patient care. Google reported in May 2018, that 20% of mobile queries are now voice searches, which demonstrates how users are rapidly adopting this communication channel.

Brad Young, Global CRM and GDPR Programme Director for Marketing, Sales and Service at Jaguar Land Rover makes some very interesting observations in his LinkedIn article regarding what he sees as the four stages of evolution of AI into customer service: evolving from enhanced enquiry help through to knowledge guru, personal assistant and finally, becoming our ‘best buddy’.

Translating these four stages into the world of pharmaceuticals and healthcare, it’s easy to see that whether it’s a healthcare professional seeking information on a product or disease area; a representative refreshing their knowledge on a clinical trial before a call; or a patient who wants some reassurance or to ask a question about a missed medication or a side effect, there is no doubt that AI, chatbots and avatars in particular, will play a significant role in providing a range of services which may historically have been sought from traditional service providers. After all, what could be more patient-centric or customer-focused than being available 24/7, 365 days a year providing accurate, tailored, non-judgemental, empathetic and compliant information?

I very much see the use of AI in pharma and healthcare as an augmentation tool; a tool for humans to use to enhance their personal and business lives. The question is not how quickly AI will evolve but more pertinently, how quickly people will evolve in our industry to embrace it and realise the benefits it can bring.

Colin Watson is Director and Founder at CWC Consultancy.

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