Is the next big disruption in big pharma?

Healthcare and pharmaceuticals are two of the most highly regulated industries when it comes to marketing and the use of consumer data. My mom has worked in pharmaceutical sales for her entire life, and over the years I have learned first hand just how much of a hindrance these regulations can be to a sales and marketing team. While social media and AI have been transforming industries left and right, the healthcare industry is shifting at a much slower rate due to increased regulations and privacy concerns. Obviously, this regulatory increase isn’t without good reason. Drug and healthcare prices are going through the roof and the opioid epidemic seems to only be getting worse. However, with the help of AI, augmented reality, and other digital technologies, several firms are attempting to reduce these consequences and change the landscape for consumers, health care providers, and big pharma.


When people think of augmented reality (AR) in marketing and client services, most examples that come to mind are consumer product firms. For instance, Nike promoted its biggest shoe launch of 2017 by allowing die-hard Nike fans to view the newest Jordans exclusively on its SNKRS app, using AR to replicate what the shoes would look like in the store. Pharmaceutical companies are attempting to utilize the lifelike aspects of AR to make drugs and other treatments more understandable to the consumer.

Example of AR being used to walk through the prescription of pills step by step

With chronic diseases on the rise, hospitals and doctor’s offices are being swarmed by previously-diagnosed patients who do not fully understand their treatment. An AR app could allow patients to better visualize their diseases, which levels of symptoms are safe to treat at home versus which need serious medical attention. Many chronic diseases are treated with self-administered injectables. If a patient does not understand how to administer their treatment, AR can assist them in visualizing the location of their injection site. A similar AR application can be used to treat patients who have lost limbs and are learning how to use their prosthetics. Patients would have the ability to view their arm or leg with their future prosthetics overlayed on top, with the goal of leading to a smoother mental transition throughout the rehab process.

The uses of AR in healthcare are not limited to prescribed treatment. Over-the-counter medications can be just as confusing as prescribed drugs, if not more. Consumers are often left wandering the pharmacy aisles, sorting through tens of medications all with the same label, side effects, and use cases. A regulated AR app can be used by the consumers to scan the aisles and highlight the medication that best matches their symptoms and needs.

Big Pharma

As their pricing structures continue to fall under scrutiny, pharmaceutical companies must completely alter their marketing structures to keep up the level of profitability necessary to research new drugs. The landscape is slowly shifting from mass-market sales to target market sales. Sales reps are no longer simply looking to sell the largest amount of pills, using the same advertising for each sector, but target the most loyal doctors and consumers. Sales managers are beginning to market their products differently to areas within their territories based on customer and physician data, ensuring the best use of their sales dollars as prices are being forced down.

Companies like Cincinnati-based Relevate are harnessing the power of customer data to assist pharmaceutical companies in the creation of regionally targeted marketing solutions. They use a combination of public and private data sources to map out the most lucrative markets for pharma brands, and then create white papers, brochures, and digital content to send to both physicians and consumers to raise awareness. I had the opportunity to shadow at Relevate for a few days this past summer, and I can honestly say that their machine learning algorithms and analytical know-how are unlike anything I have ever seen.

The disruption of the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries has been a long time coming, and I believe when it finally hits us in full force, it will have a major impact, not only on our economy but how we live our day to day lives.


  1. Your Pharma disrupting post caught my attention! I believe this is such a relevant subject to talk about and promote considering that so much of AI and AR have been focused on media, product marketing, and branding. Pharmaceuticals makes up one of the largest industries in the world affecting our physical and mental health. Their marketing has normally been what you mentioned, white papers, briefs, digital content, and word of mouth. To have companies that are capitalizing on using AR for regionally targeted marketing solutions is a win for the Pharma industry and will help more consumers understand product and industry news in an easier framework.

  2. This is a fantastic application of VR! As you said, healthcare is typically a very conservative industry, but it is also in desperate need of technology. Everyday, people are experiencing thousands of symptoms, but are not sure what products would provide the best relief. The presence of VR could expedite the process and increase effectiveness when choosing over the counter drugs. My only concern would be what the incentive is for big pharma companies to invest in VR programs. Typically, new programs are judged on the return on investment, but drugs the sales should be consistent based on patient need. There might be a small increase from greater awareness, but is that enough to justify rolling out a VR applications. I personally hope it is, because it provides huge benefits for patients. Overall, I think this is a great idea and will help people select the best drugs and understand how the drugs can help or hurt depending on symptoms.

  3. Olivia Crowley · ·

    Wow, this is really cool. Before reading, I thought this post was going to be about the ability of consumers to now video chat with doctors and pharmacists in order to receive the medications they need. I was obviously wrong, but I think that the concept can still relate in that the two could ultimately be used hand-in-hand. One of the main disadvantages of seeing a doctor or pharmacist over video chat rather than in person is the inability to receive physical explanations and guided tutorials for certain illnesses and medications. However, VR could definitely help relieve this stress, and save both consumers and professionals both time and effort.

  4. Really interesting post! I can also see this kind of AR being used as part of first aid or even first responder general training programs. As somebody who carries an Epi-Pen, the number of times that people have asked me if the Epi-Pen should be injected in the person’s arm, abdomen, or even neck (all locations that could lead to even more dangerous circumstances) is alarming, to say the least. With AR, this kind of basic, but critical, emergency response skill could be imparted to such a larger audience in a more accessible way.

    As far as changes to big pharma marketing strategies, I would be curious to see if the increased reliance on consumer data and much more targeted awareness campaigns will renew calls to end direct-to-consumer-advertising for drugs. The United States and New Zealand are the only two remaining countries in the Western sphere that allow pharmaceutical DTCA; EU member nations have consistently voted to ban the practice since the early 2000s. When coupled with data privacy concerns, I wonder if DTCA by Big Pharma will be seen by Americans as a net detriment to consumers.

  5. MiriamPBourke · ·

    Such an interesting application of AR ! My concern is that our photo recognition technology is not quite up to scratch yet so still potential for mistakes at the moment. I hope that it can be soon though as I think the application could be so impactful. Another big thing that is and will be affecting Pharma over the coming years is tele-medicine. Getting prescriptions delivered to your door is so revolutionary and as a user the experience is so much nicer. There’s no forgetting to pick up the prescription or worrying if you’re going to run out before it comes into the pharmacy. I think combining tele-medicine and advances in technology applications, like the AR one you discussed, big Pharma is set for a lot of disruption in the coming months and years.

  6. taylorfq6 · ·

    This seems like an amazing opportunity to apply AR and AI to not only help the companies using it, but the end customers as well. The technology could one day cut way down on the amount of mistreated patients and drastically improve their health – both in terms of your example of self-administered injectables, but also in simply ensuring patients do not accidentally take the wrong medication. However, I’m sure there will have to be strict regulations and a very high quality end product in order to get past regulation because it is such a sensitive topic – I wonder how far away we are from realizing these opportunities? Patients lives could truly be at stake in this space. In addition, I wonder if pharma companies would try to get the AR apps to key in on their brand of product if a customer was walking down the aisle using this technology… Either way, this seems like it would be an easy fix with regulation, and there could be immense benefits!

  7. masonpeterman · ·

    I am going into Healthcare tech after graduation so it’s really exciting to see some of the innovation that’s starting to enter that industry. AR is an exciting technology that has helpful solutions and potential in both a business and consumer facing context. Visual interaction and making it more fun for people to take in information can help save lives when you’re talking about over the counter and prescribed medications. With the improvement of image recognition, these technologies working together are poised for big disruption in this industry. As you mentioned, regulation is a hinderance to innovation at times in industries with such sensitive data. It begs the question if something like blockchain could provide more security to personal information and open the door for innovation down the road. Thoughts?

    1. Hey Mason, I know your question was intended for Olivia but I was hoping I could chime in here. I think the main issue that blockchain solves is trust. Blockchain has the most benefit when it’s used in industries where parties don’t trust each other and therefore require a transparent and immutable system. However, I don’t think trust is the issue with big pharma. While there are definitely issues with pharmaceutical fraud, it doesn’t typically occur in the US with enormous, established companies. So I’m not really sure what problem Blockchain would solve here that they wouldn’t be able to solve with a well-built database and API architecture.

  8. kgcorrigan · ·

    This was such an interesting post to read! The pharma industry does seem to be ripe for disruption, but I hadn’t considered the impact that AR and VR might have, especially in relation to administering medicine. I would hope that the process for rolling out new apps like the ones you describe above would be carefully managed – with so many different types of prescriptions in the world, it could be dangerous to have glitches – but I think it’s an exciting thing to look forward to.

  9. dancreedon4 · ·

    It’s interesting how Big Pharma is working on altering their marketing while at the same time having to walk a fine line in order to not false-advertise. I’d be a little skeptical about using AR to determine the best OTC drug based on symptoms, as so many diagnoses have overlapping symptoms…it’s like when WebMB says you have cancer when it’s really just an illness.
    Having the ability to go to a virtual doctor has been here, but combining that with AI would be a game-changer. We talked about working along-side AI/machines and I see this as an area that would truly be beneficial.

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