A recent IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics study found that 50% of HCPs first head to Wikipedia to look up a condition. Photo credit: Andy De/Creative Commons

There are myriad reasons doctors tell marketers they’d like to be approached through digital channels. Some point to their status as employees of a system or organization that limits (or even bans) contact with sales reps, while others merely note that they’re extremely busy. But for many others, perhaps it’s because — like people in basically every other profession — they sure love them some digital.

Medical marketers have hung their proverbial hats on that last notion. It conjures up images of relaxed besweatered providers carefully mulling email while indulging in an easy-listening playlist. It’s easy to picture them using an iPad to pore over the latest, ever so beautifully designed product PDF. In this fairy tale, the provider even takes the time to download the accompanying app, giving it an immediate test run on his or her iPhone.

See also: Survey suggests doctors increasingly look for digital engagement

The reality is that providers today are suffering from a digital deluge. Marketers, vendors, and everyone else attempting to woo them have adjusted their tactics to account for this new reality, resulting in chaos in doctors’ digital domains. Besides the routine chores of responding to their own interoffice email traffic and monitoring daily news blasts related to their field, they’re also reading medical journals online.

Here’s what your digital communications have to compete with. EHRs eat up to an hour extra each day for clinicians, according to a recent survey from Physicians’ Alliance of America. Many doctors — about 58%, according to IMS — then spend between one and five hours per week finding medical information online, while 56% spend between one and five hours on ongoing medical training. And that’s in between seeing patients. It’s worse for new doctors, the ones with whom you hope to forge a lifelong bond: A Johns Hopkins University study reports that they spend 40% of their time in front of a computer screen.

“The impact of digital on physicians is, in many ways, the same as on everyone else,” says Zoe Dunn, cofounder and principal of Hale Advisors. “It’s made our world smaller and more accessible and it has completely overwhelmed us. It is very hard for [doctors] to sort out what they need. In the old days, reps came to them and said, ‘Here’s the drug, here’s the information.’ That was a primary source of information, besides meetings and conferences. But now there is an onslaught of information. Is it any surprise the first place most doctors go for help is Wikipedia?”

See also: Drugmakers weigh more use of digital

She’s not kidding: With all due respect to Medline and Hippocrates, a recent IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics study found that 50% of HCPs first head to Wikipedia to look up a condition. It even found a correlation between page visits and prescription volumes. (And that’s not as scary as it sounds, since many HCPs are also editing the entries for accuracy.)

But experts say all of that digital chaos also creates plenty of meaningful opportunities for marketers. IMS research has found that tactics such as virtual visits, webinars, and digital sampling are all appealing to providers. And ZS, in its latest analysis of how companies interact with providers, says that while fewer than half of the doctors in the U.S. are accessible to sales reps, 74% “engage with multiple pharmaceutical companies across one or more channels.”


“Most technology developers don’t seem to understand that unfiltered data merely create information overload. This isn’t useful in ­patient monitoring,” said Dr. David Lee Scher. Photo credit: Andy De/Creative Commons

Of course, physicians remain leery of anything that might make the electronic swamp even more impenetrable. The most recent way to scare them off ? Bring up wearables that pair with health apps.

See also: How physician preference for mobile influences strategy

Still don’t buy it? In a recent MedScape column, David Lee Scher, MD, wrote, “Our worst nightmare would be receiving a deluge of useless information at all times of the day or night … Do we really care how many steps a patient takes or what the patient’s average heart rate is? Most technology developers don’t seem to understand that unfiltered data merely create information overload. This isn’t useful in ­patient monitoring.”

Instead, experts say that keeping a few basic rules in mind will go a long way toward making sure your nonpersonal promotions have at least a fighting chance of swimming upstream. They include:

THINK MOBILE: Digitally dexterous doctors are a boon to their patients, happy to share all that information that’s at their fingertips. For example, 47% of physicians who have a smartphone use it to show patients images and videos, according to a Manhattan Research study. And more than 33% recommend that patients use mobile health applications.

“Physicians tend to promote the use of more apps, such as weight-loss tools, that will help you take the health plan they are giving you and extend it to your everyday life,” Dunn says. “That’s because they’re looking to improve outcomes. That has become the number one goal.”

One of her favorite examples is a collaboration between Biogen and PatientsLikeMe that uses Fitbits to collect data on MS patients. Conveying that kind of intelligence in any channel helps doctors. “Knowing how people’s mobility was affected would provide doctors with more real-world outcome- based statistics,” she says.

DELIVER BROAD POPULATION DATA: What providers want most from digital, Dunn adds, is “a preemptive strike on the disease states and categories that are spinning out of control, such as Type 2 diabetes.” Anything that makes information more findable and accessible would be a nifty bonus.

DON’T OVERDO IT: The ZS study turns up some numbers that should make it clear to all marketers why providers want to bang their head on their tablet when they get an alert or email from a marketer. The top 17,000 physicians on a typical pharma company’s list might get 144 contacts a year — that’s one every 2.5 days. The top 100 doctors receive 423 contacts annually. And the poor top 10 doctors have to dodge more than 600 per year.

The 30,000 physicians in ZS’s overall sample receive 2,724 industry contacts annually, or 7.5 every day (including holidays and weekends). “It’s easy to imagine how doctors can start to get buried under an avalanche of marketing,” the report notes. “It’s also easy to see how even the right message, in the right channel, to the right doctor, could get lost in all the noise.

The takeaway is clear: Companies need to figure out which channel works best for each physician, focus on that and scale back the rest.”

See also: Developers should consider products that serve the underserved, report finds

Still, it’s important to remember that as nimble as providers can be in dodging nonpersonal communication, they also depend on it. The key is finding out which doctors are most open to it.

The ZS report shows that dermatologists and gastroenterologists are more open to reps and less likely to engage with nonpersonal channels. But those in fields like nephrology and oncology are more receptive to nonpersonal pitches. It also says that doctors from elite schools are least likely to meet with sales reps, but they are just as receptive to nonpersonal promotion as other doctors.

“People can rail against pharma all they want,” Dunn says. “But whether they like it or not, pharma is the source of clinical data. Doctors need it, despite their love–hate relationship with it. Nonpersonal communication can be a very good approach.”