How Obama's Precision Medicine Initiative will Change Healthcare Marketing

Photo credit: the White House

It's time to update the healthcare regulatory framework. According to comments made by President Obama at the White House's Precision Medicine Initiative summit on Thursday, that framework “was designed for another era of medicine.” (One in which the Internet did not exist.)

It's time to change other aspects of healthcare, too, and the president is all in. Alongside stakeholders from industry, academia, the federal government, and groups of patient and citizen scientists, the president discussed the precision medicine approach and how it will change healthcare.

That's news indeed for marketers. Here's how it will impact us, too.

New commitments for the Precision Medicine Initiative

The major commitments announced at the summit are fairly straightforward and welcomed by attendees from all stakeholder groups. The highlights?

1. Six electronic medical record vendors are going to make it possible for patients to donate their data to research, straight from the EMR.

2. A pilot program at Vanderbilt University will test programs that enroll patients into the national research cohort that's a part of the PMI.

3. There's also work to create standardized (and open) data protocols, to eliminate barriers to data sharing and improve interoperability.

What's particularly telling is what President Obama said regarding the economic implications of precision medicine. Currently, some drugs work well for some individuals but not so well for others. Without clear, open data sharing, it's often not well known who the drug might work for, and thus the drug efficacy on average is “good,” and the drug is widely prescribed. Thus, that creates high volume of sales.

However, with precision medicine, clinicians can be able to drill down and predict when a treatment will be effective or not. As a result, some drugs may be prescribed less. That's good for patients and cuts down healthcare costs but will also reduce sales volume.

What does this mean for marketers?

The resulting implication for marketers is clear. Just as precision medicine enables clinicians to understand the complex mechanisms underlying health, disease, or a condition and target treatments, marketers will need to drill down using sophisticated data analysis to understand where their target audience is. But like in medicine, where is the data for targeting audiences? This data already exists—it's just a matter of understanding, aggregation, and engagement.

As Susannah Fox, chief technology officer for the Department of Health and Human Services, recently said, “Patients and caregivers know things—about themselves, about each other, about treatments—and they want to share what they know to help other people. Technology helps to surface and organize that knowledge to make it useful for as many people as possible.”

See also: Why Gathering Health Economic Data for Cancer Drugs is Now Essential

As a result, there is a high volume of publicly available data online. Patients and caregivers are sharing their symptoms, treatments, and experiences online. This could be in online forums, or on sites like PatientsLikeMe, aggregated through patient communities on Twitter (using hashtags), or on Facebook. (Soon, this will also be more common and done through the Precision Medicine Initiative's national research cohort.)

The challenge for marketers, then, is to apply a similar “precision” approach to review and parse publicly available data to find audiences who actually want and need a treatment or device. 

This strategic approach enables them to understand the nuances and online intersections of healthcare stakeholders to enable the development of targeted, effective campaigns. Without understanding stakeholder groups, including where and how they're engaged as well as the evolution of their behaviors, our clients and organizations would have campaigns and strategies that would be generalized and less impactful than we know is possible. 

With these changes coming to healthcare from precision medicine, it may no longer be acceptable to do generic or broad marketing campaigns in hopes of catching the small group of people who may benefit from a device or treatment. (After all, 86% of consumers suffer from “banner blindness”—they literally tune out banner ads completely, according to a 2013 study from Infolinks).

See also: Rare-Disease Precision Marketing Follows Precision Medicine

True analytics-based agencies are already doing this. Thankfully, the data we have today means we no longer need to rely solely on “potential reach” or other one-dimensional metrics (number of followers, number of tweets) as a proxy to understanding online conversations. We have a plethora of metrics at our disposal to better understand everything from the usage of hashtags to the varying, dynamic engagement of online patient communities. As a result, we can advise if and how to best engage and with whom. For example, basic metrics may show a high volume use of a hashtag or high frequency of link sharing, but drilling down deeper into the data may reveal one or two individuals as high frequency posters rather than a robust community dialogue.

As a result of this initiative, the strategies as a marketer for reaching your audiences must be different—one size will not fit all. This initiative will force audience targeting to be the norm, rather than the exception. By taking a “precision medicine” approach, understanding the deeper dynamics of conversationality among online communities and ecosystems will enable the development of more effective strategies to meet your goals.

Dana Lewis is director of MDigitalLife.