The Rise of Chatbots & Their Application In Pharma

Shyam Desai, Associate Director, SEM

February 23, 2021

Executive Summary

Advances in technology, coupled with human demand and desire, intersect at points that we like to call “innovation.” One of the most common examples of human demand is access to information that can be provided immediately and requiring limited effort. Chatbots are one of those innovations, allowing humans easier access to information through advanced artificial intelligence platforms. In this POV we explore the possibilities for pharma in utilizing this technology.

Re-Introducing Chatbots
Chatbots are computer programs that sustain auditory and/or textual conversations with human users, often in an effort to simulate human interaction, complete tasks, and/or provide information that is accessible over the internet. Chatbot software typically consists of stock responses via workflows, as well as an aspect of machine learning, which allows for the chatbot to become “smarter” and provide more relevant responses based on historical interactions.

The concept of chatbots is not very new. A very primitive chatbot example was SmarterChild, which was limited in its features, simply providing basic one-sentence responses to questions like “how are you?” on AOL Instant Messenger. More recently, chatbots have been developed to answer questions and help with everyday tasks, like weather, traffic, shopping, healthy living, etc.

Today, the most popular chatbots are either Voice Assistants or Facebook Messenger chatbots. Voice Assistants include standalone devices, like Alexa (Amazon), as well as the chatbots that are built into mobile devices: Siri (Apple), Google Now (Android), Cortana (Microsoft).

Facebook Messenger bots are even more advantageous because they can be created by any developer and can be unique to any experience that one is trying to foster. Facebook Messenger has incredible reach, allowing developers to connect with over 900 million people around the world who use Messenger every month. The most popular bots are Poncho (Weather Bot), HealthTap (Health Bot), Kayak (Travel Bot), CNN (News Bot), Jarvis (Reminder Bot), and Assist (Task Bot). As of October 2016, there were over 15,000 different chatbots on Facebook.

Google Allo is a recently launched messenger app, which has a built-in chatbot assistant. When searching for information, Allo pulls in web results from, further emphasizing the importance of how proper implementation of schema and technical SEO for websites can make brands more visible across multiple devices and channels.

Benefits of Chatbots
Chatbots are not expected to be a temporary fad, as the technology enhancements and utilization opportunities are virtually endless. After re-tooling from the primitive days, chatbots have plenty of reasons why it will stick around.

  • Scalability
    • Chatbots can be developed for all types of needs, where some chatbots can complete many different tasks (i.e. “Kayak” for booking flights, reserving a rental car, contacting a travel agent), while others are very simple (i.e. Poncho for weather updates).
  • Resources
    • For instances where chatbots replicate human interactions, development of chatbots can significantly reduce the dependence on customer service representatives by answering basic questions. This frees up time for customer service reps to handle situations where human interaction is necessary.
    • For example, the 1800Flowers chatbot can handle simple ordering step-by-step or it can connect a user to a human customer service representative that can deal with delivery issues, incorrect charges, etc.
  • Reach
    • While many companies have a standalone customer service feature in their mobile app, using a chatbot via Facebook Messenger instantly provides access to over 900 million monthly users.
  • Engagement
    • Chatbots do not need to target individuals. Instead, users utilize chatbots because of a need or desire to get information or complete a task.
    • A user that initiates a conversation is essentially pre-qualifying themselves, signaling a higher propensity for a desired behavior (purchase, phone call, registration, etc.).
    • The ability to present information at the exact point of research makes chatbot marketing very similar to Search Engine Marketing (SEM).

Utilization Within Pharmaceutical Marketing
Currently, the most well-known example of chatbot utilization for pharma has been HealthTap. HealthTap is an interactive health company that has developed a Facebook Messenger chatbot, allowing patients to quickly find out what they may be suffering from and how to treat it. If the answer doesn’t already exist, they can submit questions to more than 100k doctors in the US, where they can expect an answer within 24 hours or request a live consultation. HealthTap did not need to create any new technology. Instead, they simply repurposed the environment that was previously only accessible by downloading their app. By partnering with Facebook Messenger, HealthTap immediately increased their reach to the 900 million users that already have the Facebook app installed on their devices.

Pharmaceutical companies can also get involved in this new marketing channel by developing chatbots that are specific to the needs of their core audience.

  • For example, a company can develop a particular disease state bot that answers all types of patient questions about a specific disease. Educating these patients can help prime them for starting with a specific treatment option that is launching soon.
  • A separate chatbot can be developed around a specific treatment option. This would allow patients or physicians with the opportunity to get all relevant information about the brand that they require in order to prescribe or start treatment. This includes access to adverse events, tolerability, dosing, efficacy, financial resources, etc.
  • Once prescribed a treatment option, a third kind of chatbot can help with patient adherence. This chatbot can inform patients of potential side effects and how to react, provide reminders of when the treatment should be administered, present a video on how to properly dose and administer the treatment, etc.

Challenges of Chatbots in Pharma
Of course, when dealing with the highly regulated pharmaceutical space, there are definite challenges involved in developing a chatbot that shares disease and treatment-specific content externally.

  • Content
    • All of the content would have to be reviewed by Medical, Legal, and Regulatory, ensuring that it adheres with FDA regulations and approvals.
    • This also includes how chatbots would handle reporting of adverse events.
  • Privacy
    • User utilization would have to be anonymized, including the specific conversations that take place.
  • Fair Balance Act
    • Per the Fair Balance Act, content distributed by the pharmaceutical company needs to include a fair balance of information about drug risks, as compared with information about drug benefits.

With everything considered, the path to least resistance, as in many cases, is the development of a chatbot for providing patients and caregivers information about a specific disease. Development of the chatbot must solve a current/future user problem, align with business goals, and represent the voice of the pharmaceutical company or brand.

Chatbots have value for serving healthcare professionals as well. Often, physicians and nurses are needing to understand the pathogenesis, pathophysiology, and/or progression of a specific disease in their patients. This content is sometimes available across disease state awareness sites, but chatbots would make that content readily available in more of an FAQ format. Just as patients are interested in hearing about side effects and lifestyle impacts from their prescribed treatment, healthcare professionals would find value in a branded chatbot that quickly provided data around safety/toxicity, as well as information about dosing strengths, calculations, and titrations.

Based on the recent growth of chatbots, we may not be too far away from seeing it succeed in the pharmaceutical space.