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As AR matures and becomes more affordable and user-friendly, more life sciences companies should consider its use as an essential tool to communicate, educate, and engage HCPs and patients on innovations that will improve outcomes.

More life sciences companies are using augmented reality (AR) to bring new therapies to life by combining virtual and physical worlds. AR helps create rich, interactive experiences that show how new drugs and medical devices interact with the body. Using this disruptive technology, brand teams and content providers can give their field force a better way to engage healthcare professionals (HCPs). AR can also allow HCPs to be more illustrative when explaining new treatments to patients.

Whether explaining a disease state, treatment method, or how a new medical device works, AR can significantly enhance customer engagement, improve education on complex topics, and create differentiation with more powerful branding.

Augmented Reality vs. Virtual Reality

AR and virtual reality (VR), though often linked together in discussions, are not the same. AR adds virtual objects that enhance the real world. In contrast, VR is an immersive experience in a simulated world.

AR is also considered less cumbersome than VR, which requires specialized hardware, headsets, and a learning curve. AR applications, on the other hand, run on familiar devices such as iPads and combine situational and sensorial perceptions to create a learning experience without any additional equipment. More significantly, AR is increasingly accessible on smartphones to gain popularity over VR. Industry analysts say that Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore software have fueled developers to create more AR applications for mobile devices leading to a sharp increase in AR use. And, eMarketer projects that nearly 70 million people in the United States will use AR by the end of 2019.

“In an environment where reps and doctors commonly download apps, AR on a mobile device is the way to go,” explained Sanjiv Mody, CEO and founder of PIXACORE, an independent full-service healthcare agency with industry-leading AR/VR capabilities. “However, neither AR nor VR technology should be used just for the sake of novelty when other media could tell the story better and make a more meaningful impact,” added Mody.

Successful AR Use Cases

Today, there are thousands of AR applications supporting a broad array of industry sectors, including gaming, military and defense, real estate, advertising and marketing, retail, and education.

In healthcare, industry analysts predict the global AR market to grow at a sizable 23 percent compound annual rate from 2017 to 2023. Already, AR is used in areas such as patient and doctor education, surgical visualization, and disease simulation to enhance patient treatments and outcomes. For example, one AR application maps a patient’s body, showing the exact location of veins so medical staff can hit the mark the first time when drawing blood or starting an IV prior to surgery. Another AR application reconstructs tumors in 3D so surgeons can view X-rays in real-time without radiation exposure. One function constructs 3D visuals of organs from different angles for greater precision in stitches.

AR technology also helps increase learning retention and understanding for doctors and patients by presenting complex ideas in interactive formats. For instance, one global pharmaceutical company uses a 3D heart modeling application to demonstrate the movement of medicine through the organ and its effects as part of a new treatment. Both HCPs and patients can better understand the science by seeing how it works in the body with AR. To create greater empathy and comprehension of a patient’s disease, one application simulates the effects of degenerative eye disease.

Yan Fossat, vice president of Klick Labs at Klick Health explained that by “giving someone the ability to instantly see a disease or condition on their own skin, or enabling them to see what someone with – say – macular degeneration sees is more impactful than other forms of visual and textual representation.”

Launching New Products with AR

The area where AR may have the greatest impact for life sciences companies is launching new products – particularly as companies are bringing more complex therapies and combination medical devices to patients. These innovations typically involve more complicated science or come with unique delivery mechanisms that benefit from the visual advantages of AR when introducing them to doctors and patients. AR empowers brand teams and content partners to build rich, immersive experiences to better engage with HCPs, arouse excitement about a new therapy, and instill greater confidence early in the commercialization process.

Satisfying HCPs preference for digital engagement, AR also offers a novel and captivating approach to present new drugs and medical devices using a familiar electronic device as a presentation platform. It affords HCPs the opportunity to virtually explore the mechanisms of new therapies that were previously prohibitive to demonstrate in a hospital or physician office due to weight, size, or security restraints.

Most importantly, AR enables life sciences companies to tell a compelling story, illustrating how a body experiences a disease and then how it reacts to the new treatment during different stages of the disease. HCPs learn more clearly how a new product can help patients throughout the progression of the disease state so they can communicate this to patients.

“There just hasn’t been any other medium in the past that allows interactive modeling live in real time,” said Mody. “With the right content and use case, AR also helps pharmaceutical field teams get more than the average two or three minutes with a doctor.”

Greater Ongoing Retention and Understanding

Embedding virtual learning in a real-world environment, AR provides a more interactive and engaging experience than traditional 3D modeling for greater retention of complex concepts. Now, instead of hearing or reading about results from a new drug or device, HCPs can virtually touch and manipulate objects to visualize the effects and practice procedures.

Field reps can hold a device and present a marketing pitch or turn over their AR-equipped iPad so the HCP can go on their own journey and directly experience it. In addition to field personnel serving as facilitators, doctors can take a 360-degree perspective to do a deeper dive and gain important insights about the intricacies of a molecule or medical device. The result is a more memorable experience than watching a video or PowerPoint slide – especially for those who are more visual learners. AR’s immersive experience is impactful as well as emotional, which can lead to better patient outcomes.

But not everything translates well into AR. Some media remains the best option in certain cases. For example, explaining heavy content contained in medical journals may not be appropriate for AR. Understanding the rationale behind AR is important before pursuing a project.

New AR Potential in Research and Development

The use of AR is also expanding beyond a presentation platform to allow clinical researchers to see pharmaceutical mechanisms of action and interact with cells through the use of a tablet or smartphone. For example, researchers can turn different cell receptors on and off to see what effect this has on downstream signaling inside the cell. In manufacturing, too, AR can be used to allow subject matter experts to virtually explore large pieces of equipment to find fixes without the need to fly them into the facility. This not only saves time and resources but it also prevents production delays.

The uptake of AR technology will continue to grow as it demonstrates real value. The availability of AR applications will also expand as the technology matures. As 96% of adult Americans own a cellphone, nearly three quarters own a laptop, and half possess a tablet computer – clear proof that developers need to create AR applications and experiences that work on these other devices.

“In just a few years, companies like Apple and Magic Leap, and Microsoft will develop affordable, consumer-ready, smart glasses that serve as a gateway into the exciting world of AR, said Mody. “In life sciences, industry cloud software developers like Veeva Systems will integrate AR applications into enterprise systems for even greater use across more areas of an organization.”

How to Get into the AR Game

Creating AR applications requires more specialized expertise than traditional media. At its core, AR requires content creation, deployment, and maintenance supported by dedicated resources. Some cloud-based enterprise software solutions now embed AR capabilities into customer relationship management (CRM) processes so that users can start to leverage AR in a more efficient way.

With AR capabilities available through existing, familiar software, life sciences companies can dip their toes into the technology with a less intimidating pilot program across various channels, in a controlled environment with a limited audience. Cloud-based AR applications also enable life sciences companies to seamlessly capture and learn from the effects of AR on customers, learn, and then share those insights with agency partners.

“A controlled environment is the best way to create content, test it, get feedback and make refinements. Once you have the AR application carefully programmed, introduce it in a few test-kitchens,” said Mody. “For instance, put the AR application into the hands of just a few sales reps or deploy it to a handful of HCPs for use with patients. Like any new technology rollout, take measured steps with AR initiatives, and learn from structured use cases before a full-blown launch. A roadmap is imperative to success.”

As AR matures and becomes more affordable and user-friendly, more life sciences companies should consider its use as an essential tool to communicate, educate, and engage HCPs and patients on innovations that, ultimately, will improve their brand preference and patient outcomes.

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