Ever since health organizations established a beachhead at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this decade, the health-tech community has regarded the show’s announcements as an early-year trend barometer. This year, it was immersive tech’s turn in the spotlight.

Though it’s still early days for immersive tech’s healthcare applications, pharma marketers who attended CES 2019 from January 8-11 caught a glimpse of the ways patients and clinicians might someday interact with and experience pharma brands.

Attendees wandering the conference’s 4,500 exhibitions witnessed a variety of futuristic immersive experiences, including a VR display paired with haptic feedback designed to help surgeons learn how to perform spinal procedures, a remote ultrasound device that allows pregnant women to check on fetal health from home, and a “mindful meditation” experience set against the virtual backdrop of the user’s own brainwave activity.

For pharma marketers, the ripest territory for innovation is augmented reality, in which users hold up an iPhone or other camera-enabled screen to overlay images and animations that “augment” the real world. “AR is a little closer because, from a hardware standpoint, it’s accessible on most modern phones in America,” says Wunderman Health managing director William Martino. He notes AR apps, which can include push notifications and geolocation tools, can easily be designed as extensions of existing apps.

Meanwhile, the potential of headset-enabled VR in pharma marketing is still largely experimental, confined mostly to empathy-building experiences that replicate the symptoms of a particular disease. “If you think of VR as a channel, it requires equipment not everybody has,” explains Yan Fossat, VP of Klick Labs at Klick Health. That’s why, for the time being, these experiences are mostly limited to demos at medical conferences and tech events.

Pharma marketers broadly agree the industry has some soul-searching to do in understanding how immersive tech will be used to sell products. When it comes to AR and VR apps, pharma is walking a “fine line between [providing] service and support while watching bottom lines,” says Brendan Gallagher, EVP, health experience transformation at Digitas Health.

While the immense bandwidth needed for a glitch-free AR or VR experience continues to hamstring innovators and users alike, the arrival of 5G connectivity has many industry experts predicting immersive experiences will soon explode in popularity. With that in mind, the pioneering technologies on display at CES foreshadow trends that could potentially transform the pharma marketing landscape.

Educated and animated

Nearly all pharma reps wield props and visual aids to help explain how a new drug works. It’s not uncommon for pharma marketers to create animated videos that demonstrate the mechanism of disease and how a drug’s mechanism of action works to treat it.

AR and VR tech is already being deployed to create immersive experiences to achieve that same goal. But immersive tech isn’t just for physicians: It can also be used to bolster patient engagement and a patient’s understanding of his or her condition, says Fossat. He points to a VR collaboration between Klick and Boston Children’s Hospital called HealthVoyager, which allows patients who have received colonoscopies to travel through an animated 3-D version of their own digestive tract.

Unlike the animated videos currently used to demonstrate mechanisms of action, AR and VR allows users to “move” through the experience with autonomy. “It’s almost like when color TV came around,” Fossat adds. “It’s the same, but it’s better.”

AR in particular is getting a lot of traction to train physicians

Brendan Gallagher, Digitas Health

Still, there’s an ongoing debate about the usefulness of using AR and VR merely to improve upon existing video and animation tools. There’s an argument to be made that creating an immersive version of an animated video isn’t inherently worthwhile — especially due to the added expense, Martino says.

A notable exception might be virtual training tools that allow surgeons to practice procedures on virtual dummies without risking the health of real patients. “AR in particular is getting a lot of traction to train physicians,” Gallagher notes.

To that end, CES 2018 featured demos from SimforHealth, a French company that creates virtual care environments designed to help physicians contend with unexpected or unfamiliar scenarios. This year, Osso VR demoed a display for virtual surgical spine training. Outside the confines of CES, Roche Holding AG announced the launch of a study that will explore the use of VR to train surgeons on a common eye procedure.

Telehealth arrives

With the increasing sophistication of wearables and telehealth tech, patients may soon be able to receive quality medical care without ever visiting a doctor’s office. Wearable sensors that monitor heart rate, blood glucose levels, sleep patterns, and other health biometrics are reaching a point where they’re almost invisible, Martino explains. Gallagher agrees: “Telehealth was massive at CES.” Meanwhile, artificial intelligence is increasingly being used by pharma to build out virtual assistants or chatbots.

These trends have converged to create an opportunity to provide virtual medical care. The promise inherent in this is exemplified by Addison Care, a sort of smart house assistant that “watches” residents through monitors and smart devices positioned around the home. The VR caregiver appears as a blonde, animated nurse on tablet devices, offering medication reminders, yoga tutorials, and meal suggestions.

Though 24/7 monitoring raises privacy concerns — which the industry hasn’t even begun to contend with — there is evidence virtual assistants can help improve patient outcomes. Insurance providers have long rewarded their customers for making healthy choices. In 2014, insurance upstart Oscar unveiled a partnership with the maker of the fitness tracker Misfit, through which customers were rewarded with a dollar each day they hit their step count.

The theory is that more involved and integrated immersive virtual assistant experiences could improve patient outcomes by bolstering medication adherence and suggesting healthy habits, and even intervening when a wearable device detects any sort of medical anomaly.

Empathy building remains one of VR’s most championed uses. Over and over again, people report a deeper level of empathy for the stories they encounter in the virtual world vis-à-vis stories relayed using traditional media. “Healthcare is different than any other industry because empathy plays a huge role in understanding a patient’s journey,” says Gallagher.

To date, the most exciting applications of VR have been ones that mimic what it’s like to suffer from various medical conditions.

Empathy building products

Weber Shandwick was an early pioneer with Excedrin Works, a campaign launched in 2017 in partnership with GSK Consumer Healthcare. The campaign had a VR headset that let users experience workplace migraines — an EMT suffering a migraine at the scene of an accident or a pastry chef trying to work in a busy kitchen. Though cumbersome, the tech gave a real sense of what it feels like to have a migraine, Gallagher says.

More recently, Klick Labs launched an immersive experience designed to help physicians and caregivers experience Parkinson’s tremors. Though it doesn’t include a traditional VR headset, devices strapped to users’ arms effectively replicate the tremors.

The idea started with a client’s request to create a device that would help sales reps understand Parkinson’s disease. Now the product is used for empathy building exercises, such as helping caregivers understand the condition. The tech is also used by physicians to design practical interventions and tips for everyday tasks, such as buttoning a shirt.

When there’s an increased willingness to provide services, support, tools, and a different value exchange around patient need, these technologies become more interesting, viable, and relevant to the person on the other end

William Martino, Wunderman Health

Though these types of campaigns may drive sales, the cost of building them has dampened enthusiasm. One report suggests a high-quality VR experience could cost brands up to $100,000. “The one-off examples you see at healthcare conferences are usually funded by pharma brands, but I haven’t seen examples that scale from a DTC marketing standpoint,” Gallagher notes.

Pharma marketers agree AR and VR apps shouldn’t be thought of as another screen upon which to promote products — not yet, anyway. Gallagher believes pharma “needs to continue to engage its patients from a service and support standpoint and not necessarily from an advertising standpoint.”

Martino agrees, adding, “When there’s an increased willingness to provide services, support, tools, and a different value exchange around patient need, these technologies become more interesting, viable, and relevant to the person on the other end.”