Social health revolution

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While doctors and nurses remain the first choice for most people with health concerns, the internet is making a significant impact on patients' healthcare decisions.

Pew Internet reported in May that 80% of internet users have looked online for health information, so clearly healthcare marketers have a chance to reach patients directly and inform their healthcare choices.
In this new age of participatory medicine, public relations and advertising programs must start by understanding what patients want and need, then use digital technologies to reach them with information that meets that need and does not run afoul of applicable regulations.
In the past, we created and distributed beautiful patient materials we thought patients needed, but were never sure they received. Now we can reach patients with targeted materials and actually track the materials patients found useful.

We've come so far; we can even reach patient populations that have previously been ignored or unreachable. In fact, patients among specific disease states are using digital platforms like Inspire and PatientsLikeMe to self-organize. 
Patients also own some of the most trafficked sites on the web for specific disease categories. DiabetesMine, for example, is a one-page search engine and reaches more than 26,000 unique monthly visitors. Marketers can break into these communities by creating content that patients want. 
The interactive world has also transformed our ability to connect with practitioners around the globe. Online physician social networks like Sermo provide more than 100,000 practitioners the same advantages enjoyed by physicians' peer groups associated with hospitals and clinics. Epocrates allows marketers to reach clinicians via mobile phones, making location irrelevant.
With both patients and physicians getting a majority of health info through search engines, we're now competing against WebMD, Mayo Clinic and government websites, which traditionally appear on page one for all health conditions. The challenge, therefore, is for brands to create digital, useful content for patients and/or physicians that doesn't exist somewhere else.

One way to do this is by building on an established program year after year, vs. reinventing a new program every six months, as is the norm in healthcare marketing departments. A good example of this approach is the American Heart Association's "Go Red" campaign, which builds on the campaign's established search equity through regularly refreshed content that provides patients and doctors with critical information they need, when they need it and in a format that best suits their needs. 
But the revolution still has a long way to go. Social media channels have not yet reached their full potential to become drivers of health education. While social network sites have gained ground, Pew reports that only 7% of adults use them to get health information. Increasingly, however, user-generated stories are changing that. 
For the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, a landing page on Facebook is an indispensable tool to increase awareness of type-1 diabetes. And a flu vaccine that encourages pregnant women to get vaccinated relied on mommy bloggers to get the word out. These stories portend the future—and the positive impact of delivering healthcare information through social channels.

Laura Schoen is president, Weber Shandwick Global Healthcare
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