People used to consider time spent in doctors’ waiting rooms the dullest 17 minutes in healthcare. In the pre-smartphone era, the point-of-care channel was known for dry, static images and nap-inducing brochures. Patients engaged with these materials because, well, what else were they going to do while waiting for their names to be called?

Yes, they often walked away better informed. But they likely weren’t entertained much in the process.

Contrast that with the sleek handouts and hi-res screens airing television-grade video that are now a staple of the point-of-care experience — not just in traditional healthcare settings, but in pharmacies and in the virtual waiting rooms frequented by telehealth patients. Indeed, today’s content is involved enough to prompt patients to put down their phones, ignore the fish tank and engage with brands, at the precise moment when messaging is likely to have a profound impact.

“With digital technologies, patients are engaging in their healthcare in many different ways,” explains Tara Sheehy, director of client experience at POC network Phreesia Life Sciences. “The channel has transcended the idea of just that single point of connection in the doctor’s office.”

Combine this with the trend toward more empowered patients and shared decision-making, Sheehy adds, and marketers and their network technology partners have “opened the gate to have point-of-care content take on an entirely new level of personalization and sophistication.”

That new thinking has led to content that is more educational; tells better, more diverse stories; and masterfully intermixes traditional analog formats with digital-era mainstays. And did we mention that such content often delivers a high return on investment for medical marketers?

Many of these changes stem from a radically expanded definition of what constitutes a “treatment journey,” notes Craig Mait, president and chief revenue officer of POC network Mesmerize.

“There are now just as many patients packing into waiting rooms as there were before the pandemic, and maybe even more,” he says. “Plus you can follow them as they go from the physician’s office to the pharmacy to the testing center. It fosters meaningful communication between the primary doctor, other providers, pharmacists and patients.”

Budgets have been tweaked accordingly, and point of care is no longer considered a subcategory of larger out-of-home budgets.

“I’m excited to see some of those walls blown up as marketers take a holistic, triangular approach,” says Linda Ruschau, chief client officer at PatientPoint, the largest POC network. “If it’s good for the doctor and good for the patient, it’s going to ultimately be good for our clients.”

To that end, point-of-care marketers have stepped up their storytelling games. People Health, published by Dotdash Meredith’s Targeted Media Health division, recently featured country singer Jesse James Decker sharing her story about chronic migraines. Other issues have showcased NFL Hall of Famer Terrell Davis — “the first male celebrity we ran on the cover of People Health,” says SVP, managing director John Kenyon.

Kenyon believes that celebrity health stories are irresistible — and adds that they are exceedingly budget-friendly. “We don’t pay celebrities a nickel for their health stories, and they share them extensively on their social media networks.”

For her part, Ruschau notes that marketers have finally realized that testimonials are as powerful at the point of care as they are in other channels. She points to a PatientPoint client that sells a medication for chronic constipation, a tricky subject even in a gastroenterologist’s waiting room.

“The average viewership for such a video is eight seconds,” she says. “But [at the point of care] people watched, on average, four minutes of a six-minute video.”

The content possibilities are endless, with what Ruschau characterizes as “non-advertising” proving especially effective in the oncology realm.

“We’re sometimes doing ‘Zen moments’ or ‘cute puppies,’” she continues. “It’s all about understanding what that patient is going through. Delivering more relaxing content will help the patient be a little bit more open to processing a brand message.”

It’s worth noting that quick onscreen nature segments help providers, too. “Doctor burnout is off the charts, so we’re making relaxing content for doctors as well,” Ruschau says.

Non-health-related content is important in other ways. CheckedUp began working with Dotdash Meredith in 2020, when patients “needed some escapism” during their infrequent office visits, says CheckedUp COO Carlo DiMarco.

“We didn’t run away from healthcare, but we also talked about the benefits of an organized home and taking road trips,” he recalls. “It worked.”

This content has outlasted the worst of the pandemic. Healthcare facilities “want us to lean more into wellness content — fitness, nutrition, mental health,” DiMarco notes. For a skin-cancer brand, for instance, that could mean curating content around sun hat styles or sun shelters for the beach.

While patients are clearly responding to screened content, don’t count out venerable print offerings. Kenyon — admittedly an interested party, given his company’s print focus — remains extremely bullish on print’s value to POC advertisers.

“Let’s say you have just been diagnosed with diabetes, which is scary. When you first hear about it, you need to go deep into it in ways you can’t in most digital environments,” he says.

“You need that broad canvas. In print, you can tell a deeper story.”

Print can help transition users to digital content, courtesy of once-again-ubiquitous QR codes. And given that patients are able to take print materials home with them, engagement can continue after they depart the point of care.

Meanwhile, Kenyon argues that, in the current fake-news era, print’s credibility remains high. “This is a crazy, cynical time and trust is an issue,” he says.

Video content can similarly build trust, especially when it moves beyond talking heads. DiMarco points to Gemtesa, a treatment for overactive bladders, which was featured in a segment on The Doctors.

“It’s a tough subject, right? But the segment integrated spokespeople talking about their experiences, and Gemtesa was just in the background,” he says. “It felt like the perfect marriage.”

Not surprisingly, point-of-care content makers and technologists are trying to identify the specialties that offer more opportunities. The rare disease space, in which highly engaged patient populations lean on community networks, could be a good fit. There’s clearly a need for more and better content around mental health as well.

“Patients crave the information, but they want it in a more private setting — and there’s a lot of apprehension about speaking up to their doctor,” Sheehy explains. “But when we give them tools at the point of care, our research shows that it increases comfort levels in those conversations.”

Mesmerize has seen impressive results in “work for the HIV and infectious disease communities, where it’s all about adherence,” Mait notes. “This could be the only time they hear or see this educational content.”

So now it falls on point-of-care players to quantify the channel’s impact. Phreesia Life Sciences’ PatientInsights platform recently found that patients consider point-of-care messaging more reliable than messaging from other channels, with 20% saying they trust it. (That may sound low, but it beats print at 14%, social media at 10%, the internet at 9% and TV at 8%.) Meanwhile, 23% of patients who viewed content about medications at the point of care asked their doctor about those medications in the past six months, outstripping any other media.

Similarly, when Veeva Crossix recently analyzed direct-to-consumer ads, the point-of-care channel emerged as the most cost-efficient. It represented just 2% of overall media spend but drove 17% of new-to-brand prescriptions.

“Our worst-performing campaigns are like a two-to-one return on investment and our average is four-to-one,” says Kenyon. “In some cases, it’s 10-to-one.”

In large part, that’s because it offers marketers an astonishing level of control. Kenyon uses the chronic migraine case as an example: “We’re only making this media available in the doctor’s offices by address, national provider identifier and the physician’s name, type and school. And we’re only putting it in the offices that write the most prescriptions for chronic migraine drugs. You can turn all those levers on and off and say, ‘I only want to be in offices where doctors write the most scripts for Imitrex,’ for example.”

Even the oft-maligned static images appear to have some impact at the point of care. “They have a 100% share of voice, because you can’t not look at the framed posters on the wall,” Mait quips, adding that “often, those results exceed the digital campaign.”

All that effectiveness stems from “reaching patients when they are highly receptive to content, activated to speak to their doctor and take the reins on their health. That’s when they are craving information,” Sheehy says. “And that’s what marketers want to capitalize on.”

Of course, plenty of health-adjacent brands still manage to louse it up, often by presenting their consumer-focused marketing messages without any setting-specific adjustment.

“That’s an easy path,” Ruschau shrugs. “Advertising needs to be consistent, but it does not need to be identical.”

Her pet peeve? When that type of cut-and-paste thinking results in ads that steer people to “They’re at the doctor’s office now,” Ruschau stresses. “This is the moment to say, ‘Ask your doctor if this brand is right for you.’”

Marketers also occasionally forget they’re chatting up a waiting room full of real people, many of whom are sick, anxious or crabby. Being asked to stare at images of sculpted, slender models pushing a diabetes drug is the kind of treatment consumers won’t overlook.

Indeed, inclusivity matters so much at the point of care. “People need to feel like they’re being talked to, that they’re included in consideration and that they can see themselves in the content,” Kenyon says. “That includes everything from body type to ethnicity to geography.”

For marketers inclined to target HCPs, it’s a mistake to focus solely on physicians. The most effective efforts aim at providers in the broadest sense.

“People are only seeing doctors 17% of the time. You can’t forget about nurse practitioners or physician assistants,” Kenyon adds.

So as marketers continue to grow their presence at the point of care, look for them to better calibrate their messaging and strategy. Needless to say, the very suggestion is music to Kenyon’s ears.

“Consumer demand for healthcare information has never been higher,” he says. “COVID has heightened the need for true healthcare journalism in the U.S. The appetite is there.”

For her part, Sheehy envisions a future in which every provider interaction — whether in-person or virtual — will result in a curated patient experience.

“Wherever that conversation takes place, we will be able to engage with them in ways that we haven’t even imagined,” she predicts.