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A Watchful Eye on AI


Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive-04-01-2018
Volume 38
Issue 4

Looking at the balance of optimism and caution discussed at eyeforpharma Barcelona around pharma’s embrace of AI.

It’s harder to return from an event like eyeforpharma’s annual Barcelona conference these days with just one or two key takeaways, as its content streams continue to expand and diversify. This year the range of conference sessions milked the catch-all theme, “Where Pharma Becomes the Solution.” But each year a handful of topics inevitably stand out, and 2018 saw artificial intelligence (AI) gain particular attention, as the technology’s long-promised “revolution” makes further, tangible inroads into the daily business of pharma and healthcare. 

Björn Van Loy, Trilations’ global head of advanced analytics, discussing patient use of tools such as Siri and wearables, highlighted that the “boundary of privacy” is finally shifting, with “people becoming more comfortable with AI.” Google’s Ryan Olohan, managing director, healthcare, showed how mobile activity is continuing to power the increasing sovereignty of AI on the healthcare information stage-mobile devices accounted for 57% of the 160 billion healthcare searches on Google last year. (And if you’re interested, Monday was the most common day for searches on depression, he pointed out.)

Elena Bonfiglioli, Microsoft’s managing director, health and life sciences, EMEA, noted that 30% of interactions with machines today are voice-activated; with that number set to rapidly increase, she underlined how the implications, for patient recruitment and patient activation “with the highest levels of compliance, transparency, and control,” for example, are significant.

Within the conference’s stream of AI facts and insights, Van Loy’s question, “Is pharma ready to tap into the well?” seemed rhetorical. Bonfiglioli pointed to analysis from Rock Health that shows a record $3.5 billion was invested in 188 digital health companies in the first half of 2017. What was once “a very reactive ecosystem” is changing to one that sees “digital health as a new world,” she said. And Ben Greenberg, Medscape’s vice president of product and user experience, confirmed that AI “isn’t just a buzzword, it is going to totally change the planet.”

But Greenberg also warned of the gold-rush mentality that is pushing many pharma and healthcare companies into enthusiastic programs of AI technology development before they have fully understood why they are building such products or designing such software. He offered some sobering results of a recent Medscape survey of over 1,500 physicians across the US, Europe, and Latin America, which revealed that there is still an overwhelming resistance, for example, to using voice-controlled smart speakers for professional purposes because “the value isn’t there yet.” Greenberg explained, “There is not yet a true, voiced-powered clinical decision support tool for physicians,” and noted that Amazon’s Alexa platform “is yet to really see its killer app.”

Companies engaged in developing such tools need to understand users’ “need states,” he said. “If your company is building an Alexa skill just so you can tell your bosses that you are innovating, or because you are checking a box, then don’t think you are going to get real scale and meaning from it.” 

While AI isn’t just a buzzword, the problem of “falling down the rabbit hole of buzzword-driven development” will see companies fail to achieve the results they expect. “Building a skill and having it sit in the Alexa store” is a waste of time, money, and resources, Greenberg warned, and will result, again, in the diminishing returns experienced by companies who rushed to develop mobile apps just a few years ago. 

Even Bonfiglioli, representing Microsoft, a company that has “supported about 170,000 health organizations with technology solutions,” sided with Greenberg’s resistance to technology for technology’s sake. “It is not about buying the latest device, the latest solution, the latest shiny object,” she said. The success of AI in pharma is about buying into “a new mindset, a new culture, new organizational processes, a new sense of trust, and a new ecosystem of solutions and of data.”

Only in understanding and helping to develop this new “social-digital fabric” will the industry-along with patients, HCPs, and payers-properly benefit from revolutionary technology and truly move beyond the pill. 


Julian Upton is Pharm Exec’s European and Online Editor. He can be reached at julian.upton@ubm.com

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