It’s becoming more difficult to distinguish science from science fiction these days. Doctors can measure and monitor and treat more conditions than ever before, and the pace of advancement shows no signs of slowing. While some of what’s out there may seem too good to be true – remember Google Health? – there’s a whole lot more tech that appears poised to help humankind live longer and healthier. Here are five tech trends that are shaping healthcare now, and we think they’re ones to keep an eye on in the future.

Precision (Personalized) Medicine: Treatments Made Just for You, and You
Artificial intelligence and Big Data companies like IBM Watson Health will no doubt have a significant impact on health outcomes in 2017 as they mine and analyze vast amounts of data to individualize disease treatments, particularly within the field of oncology. Case in point: This year, Quest Diagnostics and Watson announced a partnership called “IBM Watson Genomics” that pairs genomic sequencing and cognitive computing to provide more precise treatments for cancer. Other areas of medicine already using personalized therapies include cardiology, endocrinology, gastroenterology, hematology, infectious diseases, psychiatry and rheumatology.

In 2006, there were only 13 FDA-approved personalized medicines. Now there are more than 140. Furthermore, 42% of medications in development have the potential to be personalized.

There’ll be many clinical solutions developed using artificial intelligence and Big Data, but also potential marketing solutions, as well. For example, as more data points become available (anonymously, of course), such as prescription information and lab test results and even preferences and behaviors, marketers can provide much more effectively targeted messages to patients and physicians, and do so within the privacy guidelines.

Telemedicine: No Subscription Required for Greater Access to Healthcare
Telemedicine is on the rise around the United States, and if predictions are correct, this is a very good thing. The American Association of Medical Colleges estimates that by 2020, there will be a national shortage of between 50,000 and 90,000 doctors, particularly in rural parts of the country. Telemedicine will help bridge this gap to provide expert care from a distance. Major healthcare centers are already implementing telehealth services:

  • The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, is using HIPAA-compliant video conferencing to provide off-site assistance to medical centers less familiar with advanced newborn resuscitation during high-risk, complex deliveries.
  • The MultiCare Health System in Tacoma, Washington, uses video visits with nurses to monitor treatment adherence, ensure the right medicines are being taken, and provide coaching for patients on the use of medical devices. This telehealth service has improved patient engagement and dramatically decreased the number of hospital readmissions.
  • In upstate New York, a Blue Cross/Blue Shield plan will launch digital doctor visits in January 2017 to address minor medical issues; it’s planning for as many as 50,000 visits.

Pharma has begun to dip its toes in the telemedicine pond by funding digital connections between doctors and patients in remote areas of Africa, as well as developing apps that can help doctors monitor patient health from a distance. As telemedicine continues to expand, opportunities for pharma to get involved will continue to grow.

Turning Up the Volume on Voice Search 

In our 2016 trends-watch piece, we talked about how mobile search had overtaken desktop searches, and there’s no sign this trend is slowing. People are using their phones and tablets more than ever to search for information online, and that means voice search is becoming the norm. By 2020, it’s estimated that 50% of all online searches will be made using voice search. Tools like OK Google, Siri, Cortana and Amazon’s Echo let users ask questions in a natural, conversational style and get near-instant answers. What can marketers do to meet the needs of people using voice search? Four strategies we talked about recently include:

  • Optimizing content by including natural phrases and sentence structures; for example, “foods to avoid for type 2 diabetes”
  • Maximizing schema markup opportunities to help contextualize the content on a webpage
  • Making FAQ content easy for search engines to find by marking it up with schema and using natural-language phrasing
  • Striking a balance between breadth vs. depth of content by including links to additional content for people who want more in-depth information about a topic

Voice search will continue to grow and evolve as people continue to interact with the technology, and so must we as marketers.

The Medical Robots Are Taking Over
Robots aren’t just for manufacturing or dispensing prescriptions anymore. Research and development of medical robots is exploding. From human- and pet-sized companion robots that help patients and caregivers manage stress to exoskeletons that assist in physical rehabilitation to origami robots that can unfold and be guided to patch a wound or remove a foreign object to nanorobots that can deliver medicines or directly attack cancer cells without damaging other human tissue to robots that assist in surgeries … robots are taking medical treatments to an entirely new level.

Tech intelligence firm Tractica recently reported that by 2021, the market for healthcare robots, including surgical, hospital and rehabilitative robots will have grown in revenue from $1.7 billion in 2016 to $2.8 billion.

As this area continues to expand, it will be important for pharma to explore novel ways — perhaps by pairing traditional treatments with robotics — to be part of that future, whatever it may be.

Chatbots: Cheerful Customer Service at Your Fingertips
Chatbots – programs designed to simulate natural conversation online – are turning up all over. These programs use response workflows or artificial intelligence to provide answers to frequently asked questions, help in ordering products and more.

As people begin to spend greater amounts of time on chat/messaging apps like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Slack and others than they do on social media platforms, many companies are developing chatbots that essentially function like customer service agents within those apps.

So what does a chatbot look like in action? Hi Poncho is a weather bot that works inside Facebook Messenger. It collects pieces of personal information – for example, your location and when you’d like to receive a weather bulletin – and then provides weather details in a friendly, conversational style.

For marketers in general, chatbots are valuable in their potential to boost conversion. In the healthcare field, chatbots that are programmed with preapproved responses could be used to:

  • assist in diagnosis of simple conditions like rashes or colds
  • remind patients to take their medications
  • schedule doctor visits
  • help patients locate doctors nearby

In case you’re thinking that chatbots are yet another flash in the pan, think again. In early 2016, the first “bot camp” startup accelerator was held. Of the 350 applications submitted to Botcamp, “wellness and healthcare” came in fourth out of 25 submission categories. Established companies like HealthTap have already launched chatbots, and more are sure to follow.

There’s a lot of tech out there that’s going to change a lot of lives for the better, and that’s a great thing. But we can’t forget the human element behind it all. People with chronic conditions, and the people who care for them are still people. They want to feel connected and empowered and informed. Pharma can help, by continuing to create beyond-the-pill services like online communities, health-tracking apps and educational materials for patients, caregivers and healthcare professionals.