Could artificial intelligence replace pharma reps?

Whether artificial intelligence (AI) could replace reps entirely was the subject of a discussion at this year’s Veeva’s European Commercial & Medical Summit. Richard Staines spoke with experts from Veeva and LEO Pharma to find out how far this technology can go as a sales tool.

AI is proving to be hugely influential in our daily lives, with many companies choosing to automate their customer-facing operations as much as possible.

While the motivation for this is often to cut costs, a roundtable discussion at the Veeva summit heard that big pharma companies are increasingly looking towards this technology as a way of interacting with doctors.

The experts on hand at the round table discussion in Barcelona said that many doctors are millennials and that proportion of the workforce born after the year 2000 will naturally increase over time.

This new generation of doctors will eschew the face-to-face meetings with reps, or medical science liaisons, that pharma companies used in the past to educate physicians about their products.

Instead this new generation of doctors, who learn in short, intense bursts and are less likely to favour long meetings and documents, will favour other forms of interaction with pharma.

“Many companies outside of life sciences are already at risk of compromising relationships with their customers by using AI tools in their channels when things go wrong”

This is where AI comes in according to Veeva’s vice president of commercial strategy for Europe, Jan van den Burg.

There are growing expectations among healthcare professionals to interact with reps through online channels and mobile devices, according to the discussion.

According to Veeva, 85% of doctors want access to reps through “virtual services” such as online meetings and events, in addition to face to face interactions.

Reps can also use digital channels to drive longer and richer interactions with healthcare professionals – Veeva cited figures showing that the average duration of interactions can increase from 4-6 minutes in person to 14 minutes using a video call.

But Federico Fanti, global head of commercial operations at LEO Pharma, said that the model can only be taken so far – doctors will still always favour a personal relationship with pharma reps.

“It is difficult to replace that rep totally, but pharma companies can leverage AI to orchestrate the engagement with doctors in a cost-effective way” said Fanti.

Van den Burg said that many companies outside of Life Sciences are already at risk of compromising relationships with their customers by using AI tools in their channels when things go wrong.

In an industry like pharma, van den Burg said that this approach won’t win any friends among doctors who have a complaint or wish to raise issues about a product if the only channel available is a chatbot.

“How many times do you search for that contact number, but are always pushed towards chatbots and FAQs,” said van den Burg.

“You certainly need to have person to person contact. You need a point of contact from the company to deal most effectively with a customer issue.

“You definitely need digital channels but you still need to have reps.”

The conclusion from the panel of experts from Veeva and LEO was that the rep is here to stay, despite the rapidly changing digital environment that pharma companies now work in.

Healthcare professionals are no different from everyone else, choosing to use digital channels to create more valuable interactions.

But expectations are increasing too as devices and digital channels allow HCPs to connect and get the content and experiences that they want.

Pharma companies should focus their efforts on using digital channels to enhance the offerings from reps.

Digital channels such as video and online meetings are ways of building the relationships with reps, according to the experts at the event.

A recent report by Brookings into how artificial intelligence will affect the workplace seems to back this up.

According to the report, just over 37% of the tasks carried out by technical sales reps can be automated by AI-based systems.

In this regard pharma reps fare much better than the manufacturing industry where Brooking estimates that all jobs carried out by packaging and filling machine operators could be computerised.

It’s also unlikely that the doctors, nurses and healthcare practitioners that reps speak to will be replaced, according to the Brookings report.

This suggests that around 30% of tasks conducted by family doctors could be automated, although in healthcare pharmacy technicians could be in trouble with around 70% of their tasks having the potential to be automated.

Summarising the discussion David Logue, Veeva’s senior vice president of commercial strategy, said that some of the AI solutions seen outside of pharma are efficient, but not effective ways of communicating.

Pharma companies looking to build credible relationships with their clients should focus on AI as a tool to help reps do their jobs, he concluded.

“You need to have the appropriate channel mix,” Logue said.