The race to develop and distribute a COVID-19 vaccine shined a new, very bright light on the pharmaceutical industry. Before 2020, few people outside of the healthcare industry spent much time thinking about what it takes to develop a drug, nor did they consider the complexities of administering the various medications that require a regimen that goes beyond “take one pill each morning.”
The biopharmaceutical industry is massive, accounting for more than $1.3 trillion in economic output, representing four percent of total U.S. output in 2015 alone. This total economic impact includes $558 billion in revenue from biopharmaceutical businesses and $659 billion from suppliers and worker spending.
Despite remarkable innovation and progress over the past several decades, the prevailing public opinions are usually focused on high drug costs and the role that plays in the rise in healthcare costs. Finding a cure for the COVID-19 virus presented an opportunity for the industry to shine. Nobody cared about traditional timelines in development and testing; the need to get the cure was vital. The time for warp speed had arrived.
We Now All Know What a Clinical Trial Is
“Phase 3 Clinical Trials” has been a staple of mainstream news and political briefings since early summer 2020, when several COVID-19 vaccines began to show promise. If you asked 100 people what a clinical trial was before the pandemic hit, you’d likely see five hands raised. Today, it would probably be closer to 60.
Historically, creating a new drug takes years, if not decades. The combination of research, chemistry, manufacturing, and multiple waves of testing to prove efficacy and safety was the process. There are also different rules and protocols in every country that must be considered when bringing a new drug to market. Often, the multiple clinical trial phases presented the biggest hurdle in getting a new drug to market.
The trial phase of developing a new drug is a challenge, especially when you consider the volume of trials that are launched each year. The number of registered clinical trials has skyrocketed 150x since 2000, and the average number of outcomes measured per trial has increased 86% over the last 20 years. This explosion has put enormous pressure on the scarcest resource: patients.
There is an opportunity to leverage technology to engage and recruit patients for clinical trials, but it’s often easier said than done. Despite the existence of countless software systems and mobile applications, 86% of clinical trials are delayed 1-6 months because they can’t meet their recruitment targets on time. 15-20% of trials never even enroll a single patient and are forced to close.
In the race to find a cure for COVID-19, delays and failures were not an option. It presented an opportunity to rethink how to engage large patient populations for the trials through technology, with scheduling being front and center.
Healthcare Providers Use Technology to Engage Patients, Can Biopharma Take Advantage?
While providers are the ones that administer and prescribe the drugs, they also support trials by providing the regional clinical services required to handle the clinical dimensions of the trial. The process of getting a participant to a trial site is similar to getting an appointment with a doctor. And, the prevailing approach is a combination of calls, e-mails and forms...paper forms.
Healthcare providers have been working to streamline patient interactions such as appointment setting, reminders, FAQs, and referrals through virtual technology. As you might imagine, there are countless technology options to choose from, yet most still struggle to achieve significant adoption with patients. The primary problem is friction — when patients are asked to do too much to interact with the technology they abandon it. This is why we still get reminder calls from the doctor’s office the day before an appointment.
The COVID-19 pandemic created a flood of demand, which has forced providers to innovate, and virtual care has risen to the occasion. According to the FAIR Health's Monthly Telehealth Regional Tracker, telehealth claim lines increased 8,336% nationally, from 0.15% of medical claim lines in April 2019 to 13% in April 2020.
But virtual care goes beyond “zoom” calls with doctors. Virtual solutions include mobile apps, artificial intelligence, chatbots, and web technology. Chatbots may present the biggest opportunity because they are simple to use and can proactively and systematically reach out to communicate without constraint, vs. waiting for patients to come to them.
Countless healthcare providers deployed conversational chatbots to help screen, prioritize, and schedule the patients that were jamming their call centers with concerns about COVID-19. In one example, Jefferson Health out of Philadelphia used conversational bots to improve the success rates of online scheduling, improving performance over web forms by 150%.
Conversational chatbots automated online scheduling at Jefferson Health, improving performance over web forms by 150%.
As the COVID battle shifted to finding a vaccine, several large clinical trial organizations turned to the same conversational solution used by Jefferson to get 50,000 patients scheduled into the vital phase 3 clinical trials, condensing a five day per appointment process to three minutes. This was a key innovation in compressing the development timeline from years to months.
The pressure to bring the vaccine to market was real, but why would any future trial go back to the old way of scheduling? It’s a known challenge. Hospitals proved conversational technology worked for routine healthcare appointments, and then the same technology was used in most important clinical trials in history, which turned scheduling best practices on its side.
Engaging Patients at Scale Is Not Easy, But It Can Be Easier
Healthcare systems face a long road to recovery. By some estimates, the industry has already lost hundreds of billions of dollars because of COVID-19. They are in a place where they must find a way to interact with their large, diverse patient populations with something other than a person on a phone, or a complex mobile app, or an e-mail newsletter.
Conversational technology worked during COVID because it’s simple. You don’t need a password to access it. And you don’t need a user manual to use it. If a patient can talk, they will be successful with the technology.
Biopharma companies took advantage of the same conversational technology hospitals use to help get patients into appointments, prepared, educated, and reminded. Conversely, hospitals will be able to learn better ways to drive adherence with patients. Companies are investing in conversational AI to help patients with their prescription adherence and that same technology could easily be adapted to help providers make sure discharged patients follow their care plans.
There will be a lot of post mortem as the world recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. But, if there’s one thing the entire healthcare industry has learned, it’s that there is a way to innovate and reimagine the way patients are engaged, and it doesn’t have to take ten years or cost hundreds of millions of dollars. And as the technology complexity bar continues to drop for patients, it’s likely that virtual care delivered through conversational AI on a mobile device will be as common as services for booking a flight. That’s a win for everyone.