Artificial intelligence (AI) has been a major trend at SXSW for years – Intouch has summarized sessions on the topic going all the way back to 2012 – so we were not surprised to see this trend rising in volume yet again. But 2018 is the first year we’ve seen AI jump from theory to real-world practice across many industries, even ours. AI, machine learning, and the solutions they empower are firmly becoming entrenched in healthcare.

Several Intouchers attended a panel discussion called Active AI: Immersive Experiences in Health. Among the panelists was Dr. David Rhew, Chief Medical Officer and Head of Healthcare and Fitness for Samsung (seen below in discussion with Intouch’s Justin Chase, EVP of Innovation & Media). Rhew presented a number of machine-learning-driven virtual reality (VR) applications.

One example Rhew offered was a pain-relief VR experience, which was able to show success in lessening the need for opioids in 52% of patients. Another was a treatment for macular degeneration of the eye, in which VR is being used to retrain nerves and help patients regain their vision. Our Regeneron client, Natalie Mancuso, was beaming with pride through this example, as her company recently launched an empathy-focused VR solution to support the same disease state.

AI & VR Are Proving Their Clinical Efficacy
Intouch SVP / Executive Creative Director Marty Canniff was excited to note that AI and VR are finally proving their clinical efficacy. It’s becoming possible not only because of the technology itself, but because the technology is coupled with improvements in process and procedure from the medical and regulatory community.

As Chase explained, the work of Samsung’s developers has become one of only a very few in the FDA’s new Digital Health Software Pre-Certification Program, which is designed to fast-track eHealth solutions.

Several other sessions – among them, Virtual Reality for Empathy Training in Trauma and Influencers of the Future: Tastemakers or AI? – reiterated the promise of AI, but coupled it with the need for human opinion, oversight and influence. In the latter session, Intouch Media Director Angela Shaw heard how consumer brands have discovered a need to combine machine learning with peer outreach to build their brands. Similarly, Allie Golden, Intouch Associate Creative Director, heard that the most relevant and personalized experience will generally drive better results than the most complex and advanced ones.

Reimbursement Still an Issue
And, in a session with Dell Computer’s Michael Dell, When Health Care Goes High Tech, Intouch VP of Client Services Vicky Cory noted that Dell pinpointed a core difficulty with health tech: reimbursement. It’s easy to build a better computer and get paid for that, Dell said. But health tech needs to be better monetized. The value for these solutions is not well positioned in the current market access structure. In his work with UT Austin’s Dell Medical School, DEll learned that building better care means that payment for products and services decreases. This may be one reason why pharma companies have not yet widely entered the AI space.

But many other industry stakeholders are activated and exploring. We met the “Director of Machine Learning for Health” from a notable university, a “Health Innovation, R&D Director” from a large insurance provider, self-proclaimed “Patient Entrepreneurs” and “Citizen Scientists”– all passionate innovators working with AI today.

Getting Real
There is much hope and promise for healthcare delivery in the real-world AI technology we saw come to life at SXSW 2018. AI is becoming part of the healthcare paradigm; empowering “treatment” technology in hospitals, in academia, in practices and in communities. But for us, the absence of pharma-sponsored examples at this year’s conference was palpable. This observation created a spirited debate within our Intouch group: is it an emerging trend that healthcare is moving away from a reliance on pharma? Clearly not a question we enjoyed asking. Nor is it one that will be answered today with a mere micro-point of data. Especially when Intouch holds conflicting evidence. We are working with many clients today on AI-based marketing innovations, and we have sight into pharma innovators who are working hard on AI-based treatment innovations. So perhaps, as with previous trends, big pharma is slower to start but will quickly adapt to the new innovation blend. For today, it remains a question without an answer. But Intouch attendees are certainly activated to bring this debate home to our clients, and continue working with them to harness technology advancements to drive business solutions.