The Virtual Patient: How VR, AR and Other Technologies Are Set to Change Healthcare

June 7, 2017

Executive Summary

Virtual reality and augmented reality technologies are among the hottest topics in the marketing world today, and with good reason – the possibilities to engage audiences in new ways are enticing. Pharma can and has been utilizing these technologies and we’re only at the beginning. This POV will explore the emerging virtual patient and how healthcare marketers can engage HCPs and patients alike.

What is augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR)?

While in many situations AR and VR are combined in conversation, they are inherently different. Augmented reality (AR) is a real-time view of the physical world we live in merged with computer generated imagery, audio, and/or location data. To gain a better understanding, think of Pokémon-Go, where you’re able to explore your real world surroundings and capture imaginary creatures on your smart phone in your neighborhood.

Conversely, virtual reality (VR) replaces the real world with a simulated one, blocking out the real world around you. For VR, you can think of a flight simulation, where your vision is completely blocked off and from the comfort of your own home you can learn how to fly a plane, or even just get the experience of flying without ever having to leave the ground.

How is this technology accessed?

There are a variety of devices that allow someone to access AR/VR technologies. How immersive an experience may be often depends on the device. Some devices can range from several thousand dollars containing multi-faceted components with hand-held controls, and head monitoring technology. Others can be as simple as a head mount in a cardboard box for a smart phone, or even just the use of a smart phone alone can suffice in some instances.

Information is accessed through an app, internet, and/or in a hard-coded library within the device.

Applying this technology to healthcare

The distribution of content can be just as important – if not more important-than the device hosting it. Especially in healthcare, how information is disseminated can be the difference between impactful results and falling to the wayside.

The landscape for AR/VR in healthcare is no different than other topics, where there is no one way to approach it. This technology in healthcare can be dissected into numerous platforms to engage, inform, and improve ways that communicate with HCPs and patients.

Some examples of current and potential uses:

  • A cancer patient leaving their hospital bed for the day to go outside
  • Dementia patients visiting their past to improve memory function
  • Surgeons and medical students experiencing and engaging with content to learn in a more visual way
  • Providing distraction to relieve the sensation of pain
  • Elevating education so that HCPs and patients can have a more informative discussion about a treatment plan

Healthcare-related technology in this space seems to have no bounds for age, condition, or specialty. With the overall premise to improve the quality of care through experiential education, these capabilities can benefit HCPs and patients alike.

Are non-personal promotion (NPP) opportunities available?

Yes, they exist, but it’s important to note that, as it relates to promotional materials, these are not available for all companies to take advantage of today. Large investments have been made in the AR/VR field with the expectation that the market will reach astronomical growth throughout the next few years. However, to date there has been little traction of overall adoption and this industry will take time before opportunities are available on an industry-wide basis.

It’s anticipated that the initial rollout of these opportunities will correspond with larger healthcare focuses (cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular, etc.) to be a model in order to test, learn, and scale industry opportunities in the future.

Examples of NPP opportunities:

  • Related sponsorship of content library
  • HCP and patient focused eDetail experiences highlighting disease state awareness, medication facts, and/or therapy adherence information
  • “Brought to you by”
  • Custom branded materials

Real world scenarios

  • VR Case Study Takes a look into an innovative way a brand approached informing others how it is to live with certain conditions.
    • Excedrin used VR to help people with migraine illustrate their experience to their loved ones. Excedrin and their creative agency, DDB Remedy, worked with migraine sufferers to understand their first-hand experience and develop a virtual reality story that included the aura, flashing lights, blurriness and other features of migraine. They then had each person’s companion participate and share their thoughts. Not only does the loved-one have a better understanding, but sharing the film of the emotional experience resonates with viewers as well.
  • AR Detail enhances a traditional brochure by using a mobile application to overlay AR to teach how certain medication works and interacts with the body
    • Bayer used AR to educate medical professionals about Atrial Fibrillation and showcase interactive 3D models. Bayer worked with Merchlar, a digital agency, to develop the experience which would acts as a communication mechanism to physicians. This execution demonstrates in a more visualized way how the process of this condition can affect a person’s body.
  • AR Education enhanced textbook learning through visual and interactive app for med students and continuing education
    • In this example you will see an AR learning tool that uses an app to reproduce textbook material as an interactive 3D experience explaining the causes of a heart attack through animation. This allows individuals in the medical field to gain a visualized demonstration to better understand and communicate how things work.
  • Non-pharma uses in VR marketing takes a look into various successful industry wide uses of this technology that may be applicable for some brands to format into how they engage with their audience
    • In this video you will see an outline of the 10 best uses of VR in marketing outside of the pharmaceuticals industry, outlined by Mbryonic, which is a company focused on VR for various businesses. This allows an opportunity to view various successful examples of how brands can think to engage and educate their customers in a VR marketing campaign. The outlined examples showcase a number of examples stemming from consumer product goods, to vehicle test drives, and hospitality management. Despite not be pharmaceutical examples, this may help you think about how you engage your customers with your own experiential marketing.

Depending on the device and platform, data can be passed back to track outcomes:

  • Time spent with material
  • Which content was viewed
  • How many times it was viewed
  • Opt-in for more information
  • Lagging indicators of success – ROI, awareness levels, satisfaction/experience ratings
  • Motion tracking – head, eyes, hands

Telehealth: the other virtual patient experience

Another facet of the virtual patient experience is telehealth. This is a provision of care from a licensed board certified physician to patient, most commonly where the recipient is located in a different geography and connects through simulated means. The virtual appointment often involves more minor medical issues, such as flu-like symptoms, sore throat, rash, or accident injuries. There are multiple ways an HCP can communicate with a patient through telehealth, such as via a video conference, phone call, or text. The consistency is, you receive medical care from a doctor outside of a physician office/hospital setting.

These virtual appointments occur through an Uber-like application pairing HCPs and patients together depending on the service needed. Signing up is similar to other apps, where you want to sign up ahead of time before you need to use it. Consultations can include live 1-on-1 discussions where a specialist and patient are live at the same time, or where information is captured and later evaluated by a specialist at another time to follow up.

What NPP opportunities exist from telehealth services?

There are already numerous telehealth companies out there. However, companies are still finding ways to engage with users from a NPP standpoint because this is not a typical digital experience as an HCP or patient. It’s a much more personal experience.

Like many healthcare platforms, telehealth companies are targeting the same people, patients and physicians alike, increasing their base of treating HCPs and prospective care seeking patients. It’s possible that partnerships could implement add-on capabilities through multi-package deals in the future.


Technology is continuously evolving to help HCPs and patients interact with information in engaging ways. There is a vast, imminent landscape for healthcare in emerging technologies like AR/VR and telehealth. It’s important for our industry to find new ways to distribute information and create opportunities that prompt engagement with those resources.

While opportunities may not exist for all brands, it’s increasingly important to encourage an active dialogue with partners working toward these capabilities and begin thinking now how some of these tactics may be beneficial for your customers.