A physician's prescription to effective professional digital marketing

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In today's digital marketing landscape, initiating and maintaining relationships with medical professionals requires healthcare agencies to “get into the heads” of this audience. In short, it requires agencies to intimately understand the factors and motivators that drive their clinical decision-making.

The Digital Dilemma

As a recently practicing physician, I was often frustrated by the daily bombardment of data and marketing materials. Most were neither relevant to my specialty, nor applicable to my clinical needs. This seeming disregard for a physician's time and needs only re-enforces our instinctive response to reject and purge unfamiliar, unsolicited information that does not come from a trusted source. With an ever-growing myriad of marketing channels and more sophisticated digital delivery mechanisms, the increasingly complex professional healthcare marketing system has the potential to alienate, rather than to engage, healthcare professionals.

On the flip side, as a physician marketing executive, I understand the significant challenges faced by agencies and our clients to deliver timely and relevant information to physicians. Spreading the news about the latest products, services, tools, and resources is essential to pharmaceutical marketing. Pharmaceutical and medical device companies are now leveraging digital technology to expand the health marketing enterprise beyond the rep-centered approach. This trend requires agencies to closely examine the behavioral insights that demonstrate how physicians engage and use information to drive clinical decision-making processes. The insights generated from this type of research can then inform the style, format, and content of effective non-personal promotion and services.

In a recent conversation with a medical colleague, I was intrigued by a simple yet profound statement:

“If the information is important enough, it will find its way to me.”

From a clinician's perspective, I couldn't agree more. As a healthcare marketer, I need to understand how to resolve this conundrum for my clients.  And as an adjunct professor of medical innovation & entrepreneurship, I seek prescriptive insights for my students who are passionate about finding solutions to advance our health system.

At the end of the day, physicians must sift through and prioritize mountain-sized piles of information. The question for digital marketers is:

How can we ensure our information reaches the top of the mountain so that physicians take notice, engage with interest, and ultimately respond to a call-to-action?

An Organizing Framework

Based on my experience, I propose a 3-pronged approach presented from the physician perspective to help frame this challenge.

1. Come Find Me
One of the biggest hurdles we face is figuring out where physicians obtain their medical information and how they share their knowledge to drive clinical decisions.

How do we leverage digital channels to be where physicians are (and want to be)? Where do physicians seek, access, and obtain medical information?

Unfortunately, the answer is not as simple as we'd like it to be.  Depending on the context, physicians seek, access, and obtain information from a variety of sources.  To craft optimal digital marketing solutions, we need to understand:

(1) The application of technology in their practice (e.g., desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone, other);

(2) The context in which they use technology to access information (e.g., disease state review, medical education, brand info, search, publications, prescription support, formulary information, other);

(3) When and where they utilize such digital devices (e.g., during or between patient consultations, after clinic hours, at home, other); and

(4) How information is delivered to the digital device (e.g., email, web, app, text, other).

To make matters even more complicated, there is great variability both within and between medical specialties; and each specialist has his/her own specific preferences and trusted sources of information.  For example, for trial data, one may look for the pivotal trial publication from pubmed; for drug dosing and safety info, one may go to the brand website; for treatment-related considerations, one may access UpToDate; for treatment advances for a particular condition, one may start with a Google search; and for latest guideline recommendations, one may go directly to the specialty association website. As you can see, each particular information need differs and requires a thorough assessment to determine when, where, and even if pharma marketers can play a role in serving these needs.

To help address the feeling of information overload for the physician, we need know where our target audience goes, what they are looking for, and how they plan to apply what they find to meet their practice needs. Rather than have the physician find us, we need to find the physician and be where they are residing.

This effort requires an in-depth understanding into the physician behavioral mindset. Unfortunately, such a thorough dissection into the physician mindset cannot be found in off-the-shelf market research reports. This is where experienced physician Medical Directors play a critical role in agencies working closely with account planners, strategists, and other capabilities to uncover the granularity of how, when, where, and why physicians' access and retrieve information.

2. Grab My Attention
Once we understand where our target physicians reside within the digital ecosystem, we need to figure out how to get their attention.

How are we prioritizing and conveying key messages and information to earn the physician's attention? How are we breaking through the clutter? 

To answer these questions, we first need to recognize that all physicians are not created equal. They respond to messages in an individualistic manner.  What's more, each specialty carries its own unique needs and priorities.  And in the decade long training it takes to become a physician, each doctor develops a professional medical persona that reflects both their specialty specific training and their particular approach to clinical care.

The impact of the medical persona on reactions to pharma marketing is subtle, yet powerful. Conducting traditional market-research focus groups with physicians in which you ask truly incisive questions can oftentimes result in response bias as well as social-role posturing that may obscure the true nature of this persona. To circumvent this, agencies can tap into their in-house physician medical directors to understand these intricate differences. Believe me, in my experience, these are the type of unique insights that separates the mere good agencies from the very best.

3. Make it Meaningful
Finally, once we succeed in getting the message to ascend the mountain peak, how do we then make it meaningful, relevant, and useful enough to warrant repeat contact? The mantra that ‘messaging frequency drives awareness' that once dominated the traditional media space no longer holds when we step into the digital media world. For example, frequent emails as part of PRM strategy to maintain communication with our target audience does not necessarily translate into increased brand awareness — as this approach generally requires physicians to open the email to even see your message. In fact, many agencies send out ‘spam-like' messages to physicians that masquerade as ‘value' to the untrained eye.

When we cry wolf one too many times, we begin to not only lose the attention of the physician we fought so hard to get, but we also risk losing our trust and credibility. For example, I have personally seen emails that distribute brand-specific efficacy data one month and safety data the next month. Having practiced medicine, I can tell you that if I needed to find drug information, I could easily find everything I needed to know online within 5 minutes. Additionally, what sense does it make to receive efficacy data today and safety data a month later? That's equivalent to telling a patient that you will prescribe the drug today, but will only explain the side effects next month once you get the email with the pertinent safety information. It just doesn't make sense because the realities of clinical care don't work that way.

So, what is meaningful?  To answer that, one needs to understand the logistics and nuance of the physician's daily workflow and their decision-making thought process.

How do physicians practice within their respective field of medicine? What information keeps them up-to-date?  Which medical sources provide information in a way that respects the physician's time and resonates with their particular practice needs? How will new information change the way physicians practice and influence the choices they make? What will ultimately help them improve patient outcomes?

Understanding the physician workflow can be highly complex when factoring in the physician's specialty, type of setting in which he or she practices (e.g. solo vs group, community vs academic), and the patient mix they treat (e.g. young vs. elderly, Medicaid vs. Medicare vs. Private, etc). When crafting digital touch points for your physician customers make sure to first screen and validate what is meaningful, relevant, and useful with your Medical Directors. Ultimately the effectiveness of your digital marketing solutions can and will be tracked through key performance metrics over time.

Concluding Remarks
In Outliers, author and astute cultural observer Malcolm Gladwell suggests that the genuine mastery of a skill set requires at least 10,000 hours of concentrated and focused effort. It is worth noting that medical training entails an average of 25,000 hours of concentrated study and practical training. Are market research and survey data adequate to grasp profound and varied ways in which the physician's mind-set is shaped by this immersive and transformative training experience? It may be that “It takes one to know one.”

Gautam Gulati, MD, MBA, MPH, is vice president/group director, science and medicine at Digitas Health; Adjunct professor of medical innovation & entrepreneurship, Johns Hopkins Carey Business School

* See table on how to connect to doctors

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