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  • Writer's pictureKarsten Schmidt

Markedly increasing digital customer engagements to compensate reduced HCP accessibility

In recent conversations with people from my network, I have noticed a rising interest in moving from push to pull customer engagements as a means of compensating for reduced HCP accessibility. That is why we have invited Guido Axmann, CEO of, for an interview on this compelling topic. Guido is a medical doctor by education and has been heading up Xircle for the last seven years.

Karsten: Thanks for taking this time for an interview, Guido. During the present COVID pandemic, f2f customer engagements for pharma companies have significantly been decreasing and can only partially be substituted by remote ones. What could be new ways of engaging digitally with HCPs?

Guido: First of all, thank you, Karsten, for the interview and the opportunity to tell you and your readers about what we do at our company.

The trend that most physicians no longer have time for visits from pharmaceutical representatives was evident even before the pandemic. In our work, we find that this is particularly true of the exchange of pharmaceutical knowledge. Studies also underscore this: The average time sales reps spend with customers per visit is 7 minutes including the small talk. And more than 90 percent of physicians prefer to research information online.

This situation has, of course, become even more acute since COVID-19. What is clear is that engagement has already shifted to digital channels in many areas and will continue to do so. Think of the countless seminars, conferences and training sessions that have now taken place exclusively online for almost two years.

Personally, I expect that it will make sense for most BigPharma to unify their myriad channels to make it easier for customers to find their way around. This does not mean that the physicians cannot communicate with them in different ways - on the contrary, the HCP should receive the same, first-class service through the channel of their choice. This is the only way they can offer customers a service that they are already very familiar with from other industries, e.g. online retail or financial services.

Human relationships cannot and should not be dispensed with. But if this is not possible for any reason, e.g. long distances, travel restrictions or lockdowns, we have to offer unparalleled solutions. That is what we are working on.

Karsten: HCPs do spend a considerable amount of time searching for information online. From your experience, what information are they mostly looking for and how useful is the information that pharma companies are currently providing?

Guido: On the one hand, physicians, both general practitioners and specialists, are looking for new or alternative forms of therapy. But the main part is looking for drug-specific information. We distinguish here between the Browsing and the Searching Mode.

In the searching mode, the physician narrows down his search mostly with ingredients or brand names and searches specifically for answers about dosage, shelf life or interactions, for example. In addition, physicians use digital channels to educate themselves, read new studies, and exchange information with colleagues.

We see a great deal of interest among HCPs in making sure they have last-minute assurance about a drug and to hedge their bets. This idea of safety can be crucial, and the answer should be found quickly and easily. This is exactly what we ensure with the digital assistant which we have developed.

Illustration: Future of Pharmaceutical Knowledge - powered by AI

Karsten: What are main differences of a digital assistant as compared to a typical chat bot?

Guido: You can think of it like this: A chatbot actually works like an automated call center software. The user is guided to the answer via a decision matrix. "Are you interested in x, then say yes." It is easy to lose patience after the third step at the latest and look for an alternative source or shout into the receiver that you would like to speak to a person.

Our Digital Assistant works quite differently. The embedded AI, developed specifically for the pharmaceutical industry, recognizes the user's actual intention in entering the free text field. Just like you are used to from Google. Only in the case that the system does not recognize the intention or cannot answer the question, our assistant does a full text search and in the last step it forwards the requests to an expert.

Karsten: I can imagine that understanding the question at hand exactly can be challenging sometimes. How can smart algorithms solve this issue?

Guido: Our new algorithm will bring conventional search technologies such as full text and semantic search up to date with the latest AI technology and will be able to identify answers to questions of doctors and patients even more accurately.

Karsten: To what degree can digital assistants fully cover the inquiry of HCPs versus the need of a human interaction as a follow-up?

Guido: Our digital assistant can answer 60-70% of the HCP queries directly and automatically. Many physicians also already know the answer and just want to double check. These are mainly the questions related to the summary of product characteristics and the package leaflet. If an HCP wants to talk to an expert or the question is too complex, there are limits. Of course, the AI which is being used can only try to understand what is typed in. We are not yet ready to completely map a conversation between experts, where tens of other factors play a role, such as human experience, facial expressions, body language, emotions and detailed clarifying inquiries.

But when it comes to getting a quick answer to a burning, sometimes vital question, we offer the fastest, smartest and safest channel.

Karsten: Apart from medical information, in which other areas can a digital assistant be used?

Guido: Look, Karsten, in theory our solution can be extended to all complex areas where a variety of information needs to be conveyed. We train our AI together with physicians specifically on pharmaceutical knowledge - this specialized knowledge makes the our digital assistant quite unique. But we are also already thinking of developing a solution for medical devices for one of our customers.

Karsten: In your view, what is hindering pharma companies still today from adopting digital assistants more broadly?

Guido: Perhaps they do not yet recognize the signs of the times? Maybe they think the “old normal” is coming back? But seriously, the pharmaceutical industry is one of the industries that has largely been able to benefit from the crisis - even without treating digital transformation as a top priority.

But we see a trend, especially among the big pharma companies, that they want to adapt their customer service to the “new normal”, which is seamlessly digital - and that means providing customer-centric solutions that give the HCP the best possible user experience. As I mentioned at the beginning, this started before the pandemic and has been accelerated by the pandemic and will be a huge tailwind for us in the coming months.

Karsten: Thanks Guido, for sharing these very interesting insights related to this innovative digital channel. In summary we can say that when physicians are looking for drug-specific information, it needs to be readily available for them. Artificial intelligence embedded in digital assistants must be able to recognize the user’s actual intention and needs so that an important proportion of product-related queries can be answered directly. The remaining open questions have to be forwarded swiftly to an expert for further processing. Providing answers quickly to physicians when they are in search of them online by means of smart digital assistants, can be an important element for pharma companies to improve the overall customer experience and service.

How valuable do you think digital assistants can be for healthcare professionals when they are looking for drug-related information? Please feel free to comment below.

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Xeleratio Consulting Ltd.

We help Life Sciences executives improve sales performance with innovative best-in-class Business Excellence tools and methodologies . Expertise in Business Excellence has been gained with over 12 years of working in different global and regional roles in the Life Sciences industry.


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