One of the real underscore/exclamation mark findings in our patient research this year was that nearly 1 in 7 U.S. adults have asked Siri (or Alexa, or another voice assistant) for information on a specific branded prescription drug.

Maybe it’s not surprising, given the ubiquity of voice assistants in our homes, in our pockets and on our wrists. But it’s indicative of a big shift in how we get information – medical or otherwise -- online.

So what does it mean for search – and for life sciences marketers?

  • Voice search for health rises when patients are prepping for a medical visit, and peaks at the point of care. Across the patient journey, top categories of search terms include specific websites (35% of those who use voice search for health), symptoms (35%) and conditions. Just as 13% used voice search for info on a specific branded drug, the same share accessed info on generics (e.g., ‘Sildenafil’) and pharma companies (e.g., ‘Pfizer’) via voice.
  • Trusted names dominate voice apps. Top voice assistant apps or skills include WebMD (used by 20% of those who use voice search for health), Walgreens (13%), Mayo Clinic (13%), and GoodRx (13%).
  • Voice apps from pharma and medtech could see use – provided they fill a need. 1 in 5 U.S. patients says they’re likely to use a voice skill or app from a pharma company. The use cases with the greatest potential, going by patient interest? Checking doctor appointments, side effects info, condition information, prescription refills and medication reminders.
  • Google’s got company, and the market is fragmented. While Google has dominated the search engine for more than two decades, the voice assistant field is much more lively, with Google Assistant (used by 18% of U.S. online adults), Apple’s Siri (17%) and Amazon’s Alexa (16%) clustered at the top, trailed modestly by Microsoft’s Cortana (11%) and Samsung’s Bixby (9%).
  • Physicians are using voice search for Rx info, too. 47% of U.S. physicians use voice search (and 7% do so daily!). Among users, 17% report searching for branded drugs by name. 54% of U.S. physicians have recommended or would recommend a voice app to patients, and for their own use, highest-interest use cases include checking dosing, reading out the latest medical news and ordering patient education materials.
  • …However, they have serious concerns about data privacy with voice apps. 63% of U.S. physicians say they worry about data security issues with voice search for clinical use, and transcription/translation errors are also a concern. Voice technology could be a huge help to physicians in note-taking and EHR upkeep – indeed, a host of players large and small, including tech giants like Google, Microsoft and Amazon, are working on voice solutions for the EHR.

Patients worry, too – 18% of those who use voice assistants for health say they’re reticent to do so because of privacy fears. That said, once the privacy kinks are worked out, `voice assistants could prove a big help for seniors and patients managing chronic conditions, boosting medication adherence and helping navigate appointments. A number of voice apps for health, such as the Merck-backed Staywell Voice, are already on the market, and there’s at least one health-specific voice assistant, HandsFree Health’s HIPAA-compliant WellBe, on the market.

For now, marketers should keep an eye on this space and talk to their agency partners about ensuring that their digital properties are optimized for voice search in order to ensure that patients are finding the most authoritative information about treatments. There are some nuances to voice search – think more natural language, searches phrased as questions – that need to be considered. It’s important that brands conduct the necessary market research to understand what kinds of language patients are using online. And brands should be on the lookout for opportunities to add value for patients and physicians through voice apps or skills that serve important unmet needs.

It’s still early days for the shift to voice search and computing, but patients and physicians are voting with their feet (or rather, their vocal chords) for the ease of use and instantaneity voice tech entails.

Data sourced from DRG studies of patient and physician multichannel attitudes and behaviors, including Cybercitizen Health®, ePharma Consumer®, Taking the Pulse® and ePharma Physician®

Key ESMO Highlights 2020

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