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How the 1st Pharma Chat Bot Came to Life


And what healthcare executives and innovators can learn from its launch.

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Elisa Crisafulli almost cringed when she said it: “Artificial intelligence is going to replace us.”

The digital customer engagement associate director for the pharma company MSD Italia doesn’t actually believe that AI is dangerous. Rather, Crisafulli was repeating a refrain she hears too often in the healthcare industry. Her response? “If we use it well, we can take advantage of it.”

That’s what Crisafulli and her division of Merck are doing. They recently launched the pharmaceutical industry’s first chat bot, an AI program that answers physicians’ questions through Facebook Messenger. While it took time and risk to get to this point, the origin story of MSD Salute Bot holds insights to help guide innovators across healthcare.

“Bottom line: The world is changing,” Crisafulli said yesterday, Oct. 3, the opening day of the Digital Pharma East conference in Philadelphia. “If we have the right content, we’re going in that direction.”

The chat bot’s roots lie in social media. Several years ago, MSD Italia opened Twitter and LinkedIn profiles. Eventually, after a battle with the compliance officer, it moved to Facebook. Last week, the company launched an Instagram account.

Along the way, Crisafulli said, MSD Italia picked up thousands of followers, sparked conversation, and encountered no problems related to pharmacovigilance, a major concern at the outset.

A couple of lessons? Each campaign provided value to the company and its audience, and early fears turned out to be unfounded. Instead, Crisafulli noted, users understood and adapted to the purpose of each channel.

After the success of those experiments, AI seemed a natural next step.

MSD Italia decided to create a program that provides information on a given product and pathology to physicians, who must register with the company. Doctors may ask questions or click a button from a carousel. Then immediate feedback and machine learning work to improve future interactions.

And it all takes place through Facebook Messenger.

“Considering this is so new, we wanted some old, so to speak, or used,” Crisafulli told a captivated crowd, “in order for it to be quick and easy to get there.”

But the company’s blending of the old and new didn’t end there.

Some of the same concerns surrounding social media again surfaced here, she said. People wonder whether chat bots are useful, or how AI could amplify regulatory and safety issues.

So human beings observe conversations between the AI and users, making sure the bot doesn’t say anything offensive or against pharmacovigilance. At the same time, the designers wanted the exchanges to feel open-ended, she said.

“For now, I would go with the monitoring, but not filtering,” Crisafulli said. “Because if you filter, that gives the idea that you are deciding, and that’s useless if you want users to be free to speak up.”

So far, MSD Salute Bot has been live for less than a year. The company has not promoted it, as reps and key opinion leaders are testing the tech to work out any kinks.

After all, Crisafulli said, the bot’s mission is to get timely and correct information into physicians’ hands—a solution for a genuine problem. And that goal has remained the compass on this journey.

MSD Italia is exploring other ways for the chat bot to get at this basic problem. Voice chat, Crisafulli said, could come in the near future. As she noted, healthcare has a chance to evolve alongside the tech. The world certainly will.

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