Pharma chatbots: the pros and the cons

Pharma chatbots: virtual assistants trained to answer healthcare questions and provide interactive, AI-based support for pharmaceutical customers.

The healthcare industry has, historically, been slow to catch up with new technologies. But as the global chatbot market explodes, we’re starting to see more and more pharmaceutical bot deployments.

As with any new technology, adoption means weighing up the pros and cons. Are pharma chatbots a digital fad, or are they truly worth deploying?

Here, we examine the use cases for pharma chatbots and assess the risks against the rewards.

First things first, what is a chatbot, and what do they do?

Chatbots are, as the title suggests, bots that chat with users. This is often through a text-based chat interface, but increasingly includes voice conversations, too. In short, they’re software that simulate conversation with humans and perform relevant tasks.

A network of rules powers most chatbot conversations. (If the user says this, then you say that.) However, as artificial intelligence (AI) continues to branch out into various fields and technologies, chatbots are also becoming increasingly ‘intelligent’.

AI-powered bots, then, can use natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning (ML). In turn, this means they can hold a passable conversation. (Rather than simply retrieving a relevant response from an answer bank.)

How could pharma chatbots prove useful?

Pharma chatbots can offer faster access to care, plus smooth, 24/7 medical advice and health management support. Here are a few use case examples.

  • • Clinical trials

A real-world example of pharma chatbot deployment comes from Microsoft. Microsoft has developed a chatbot that aims to connect patients to suitable clinical trials. After asking the patient fact-finding medical questions, the bot can suggest the most relevant available trials.

  • • Patient/customer support

A core use of pharma chatbots lies with patient or customer support. For instance, a chatbot could easily handle simple, repetitive questions about dosage. It could handle product or service enquiries. A chatbot could act as a way for patients or doctors to report adverse effects.

Or, a pharma chatbot could be a way to support patients with their health management, to build relationships and encourage the use of your brand.

  • • Pharma sales admin support

Another area for pharma chatbots to shine is sales admin. For example, a chatbot could help pharma sales reps by setting up meetings and chatting with them to offer reminders.

Chatbots could also become a vessel for offering demos, catalogues, and so on. So, potential customers can ask the bot for the information they need, freeing up a sales rep to close the deal.

The pros of pharma chatbots

Beyond what pharma chatbots can do, there are some extra beneficial effects they can create.

  • • Faster data

One of the biggest — and most lauded — benefit of pharma chatbots lies in the treasure trove of data it can unlock for pharma companies.

You can see everything that users have asked your chatbot — giving you insight into the areas people are most concerned about. Plus, chatbots allow the sorting of data based on user, be they doctors, pharmacists, or patients.

Additionally, the feedback collected from chatbots offers a faster way to collect data than traditional Awareness, Trial and Usage studies (ATUs). Pharma chatbots can provide near real-time intelligence, at any point of the patient or customer journey.  

  • • 24/7 accessibility builds trust

Faster, easier access to pharmaceutical information makes for a more accessible, trustworthy brand identity. Having a chatbot on hand to answer queries makes your company more open and so more trustworthy for patients. This can work to help build trust with healthcare professionals (HCPs) too.

By resolving patient queries (at any time of the day) pharma chatbots can establish the companies they represent as trusted sources of medically correct information. By helping patients, they also stand to attract doctors who appreciate the extra support.

  • • Increase in efficiency and productivity

With pharma chatbots handling sales admin and frequent patient questions, representatives and doctors alike are freed up for more high-value work. In other words, pharma chatbots unlock time and mental energy to spend on the things that further your business and help patients.

Data analysis graphs

The cons of pharma chatbots

But what about the other side of the coin? Chatbots are not infallible, and there are risks and cons to introducing pharma chatbots.

  • • Loss of the human touch

In pharma — and the whole healthcare industry — there’s a real need for the human touch. Chatbots are not human, and they can’t build human relationships or show true empathy.

In other words, while they can promote a brand/customer/patient relationship, they can’t build a human connection with Dr Smith, or Pharmacist Cameron, or Patient Alex.

  • • Trust issues

The lack of the human touch expands into the question of trust. There’s a risk with pharma chatbots that their users won’t trust the messages the chatbot sends. So, for instance, if a chatbot sends a pharmaceutical recommendation, or answers a dosage question, people may not trust it.

This trust expands to questions of HIPAA compliance. Without extra assurance, users are often wary of trusting chatbots with their concerns.

  • • Accuracy questions

Chatbots sometimes get things wrong. Another risk, then, is a pharma chatbot providing an inaccurate response.

However, every response a chatbot gives has been written by a human — the chatbot simply offers it up when prompted. So, the messages themselves will have the same accuracy as advice from a human HCP or sales rep.

  • • Privacy and security concerns

Chatbots collect and use data. In pharma, that data can be sensitive — and it needs to be extra secure. Pharma chatbots need to be HIPAA compliant, securely hosted, and incorporate privacy by design.

Plus, artificial intelligence takes masses of data to train. This adds an ethical question about whether it is fair to use medical data to train pharma chatbots.

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Breaking into the industry

Pharma chatbots are fast growing into reality. They stand to offer a wide range of benefits and uses, provided they’re deployed carefully and in a reasoned way.

As ever, there are some potential drawbacks to overcome, but that hasn’t slowed the growth of chatbot technology in pharma.

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