Finding Humanity with AI


Words by Michaila Byrne 


The primary goal of medical affairs is customer centricity. With the help of artificial intelligence, teams can extract valuable insights, uncover unmet needs, and make faster, more informed decisions. How can AI help MA retain their human touch as the industry reimagines the field and creates a best-in-class function?


The collection of data has been going on since the Ice Age when tally and tick marks were being etched into cave walls to record and keep track of food inventories. Throughout history, custodians of knowledge have contributed towards everything from the advancement of civilisations to scientific discoveries; medical affairs teams act as the primary data gatherers in the pharmaceutical industry, uncovering and communicating the needs of healthcare professionals. For this title to fit in the 21st century, a human touch blended with the power of artificial intelligence is the path forward to help MA generate new insight, sift through large swathes of medical data, and edge closer to the goal of customer centricity.


“In MA we are now producing huge amounts of data, from evidence generation activities, advisory boards, scientific exchanges, and most importantly, in the field. To use this data to the benefit of our customers we must leverage the opportunities now presented by technology, in particular data analytics and AI,” says Alexander Bedenkov, Vice President, Medical, International, AstraZeneca, speaking at Reuters Events’ Pharma Customer Engagement Europe. Face-to-face contact is a cherished and crucial aspect of the MA role, but teams whose oversight spans larger areas could certainly benefit from the assistance that AI offers. As Victoria Ho, Head of Medical Capabilities and Excellence EUR/INT, Jazz Pharmaceuticals, points out: “If you’re a medical science liaison responsible for a large geography, you obviously have to use technology to deliver a service, because you cannot be in every place at every time.”


We must leverage the opportunities now presented by technology, in particular data analytics and AI

Personability is something that the MA function prides itself on, but AI entering the picture doesn’t mean it must be relinquished; rather it allows MA to focus on their primary purpose as insight gatherers. “MA designed for the 20th century will be eclipsed by the current era of patient-centric and digital healthcare of the future. This makes it increasingly important that we understand customers’ needs and provide the right knowledge at the right time to physicians,” says Bedenkov. We must find a way to work within that sweet spot where technology and humanity can operate in harmony, something which the industry is referring to as ‘human-centric AI’. But how exactly does it work? Nipun Jain, Head of Medical IT and Digital, International, AstraZeneca explains: “The advanced machine learning algorithm can quickly understand and respond to these queries to analyse both structured and unstructured data sets. Working together with human AI, our pharma expertise has helped unlock the potential of what this AI-driven platform can do.”


It is all about bringing insight to where the decisions are being made as quickly as possible. “We have a lot of understanding of the needs of clinicians and the patients in the heads of field-based teams. We have seen an explosion of tech companies promising to be able to streamline processing within the pharma industry in the last 2 years and that’s not a coincidence,” says Ho.


This shift will require buy-in from the whole MA function. The MA field role is being reimagined in the light of the pandemic, and both individuals and teams need to be kept as up to date as possible through upskilling. Jain confirms: “Our teams are uplifting their practical capabilities in areas that will be increasingly vital in the future of MA. They’re developing their skills in data analytics, AI, and machine learning, to help them to make the most of new technologies and shape future ways of working.” Bedenkov is similarly optimistic: “It is obvious that measuring field medical impact has often presented a challenge; a growing amount of data is gathered from multiples sources and tools. Human-centric AI can be effective in solving this problem. It is certainly an exciting time.”


Since the dawn of time, we have been honing our ability to collect, store, and share information and have never stopped embracing new tools. Whether it be the passing down of melodies and lyrics in folk music, or baking clay tablets to record censuses, humanity has always strived to improve its ability to share knowledge. AI presents a pivotal opportunity for MA to leverage data while retaining a human-centric approach, ultimately making decisions faster and easier to act upon. It is by utilising such apparatuses that we can evolve even further to create the most sophisticated best-in-class MA function.