How Social Are Healthcare Consumers with their Information?

PEW Internet and California HealthCare Foundation have recently issued a new report called The Social Life Of Healthcare Information: Americans’ Pursuit of Healthcare Information Takes Place Within a Widening Network of Online and Offline Sources (June 2009). While much of the study is confirmatory, there are nuggets for pharma and healthcare marketers to consider:

  • The Internet continues to be a growing source of healthcare information –61% of US adults look online for healthcare information vs. 25% in 2000.–Further, mobile access draws people into conversations about health as much as online tools enable research. Wireless connections are associated with deeper engagement in social media and information exchange. And mobile access is on the rise.
  • American adults continue to turn to traditional sources of health information, even as many of them deepen their engagement with the online world. —  Experts remain vital to the health-search and decision-making process.
    • 86% of all adults ask a health professional, such as a doctor.
    • 68% of all adults ask a friend or family member.
    • 57% of all adults use the Internet.
    • 54% use books or other printed reference material.
  • As expected, differences emerge between age groups; younger tend to be less reliant on their physicians.

  • The socialability of  healthcare information is robust–what’s gleamed from the web is not used in a vacuum and becomes part of other conversations–1/2 are searching on behalf of someone else and 2/3’s share the information with others.

  • A growing majority of e-patients access user-generated health information. Health consumers are looking for tailored information, searching for a “just-in-time someone-like-me.” For example:
    • 41% of e-patients have read someone else’s commentary or experience about health or medical issues on an online news group, website, or blog.
    • 24% of e-patients have consulted rankings or reviews online of doctors or other providers.
    • 24% of e-patients have consulted rankings or reviews online of hospitals or other medical facilities.
    • 19% of e-patients have signed up to receive updates about health or medical issues.
    • 13% of e-patients have listened to a podcast about health or medical issues.
  • But few are actively writing or creating new health content at this point, ranging in the 5-6% level:
    • 6% of e-patients report that they have posted comments, or information about health in an online discussion, listserv, or other online group forum.
    • 5% of e-patients say they have posted comments about health on a blog or a review online of a MD
    • In sum, 37% of adults, or 60% of e-patients, have done at least one activity to go beyond typical web search. (But the social media segments that Charlen Li and Josh Bernoff mapped out continue to hold true)
  • Despite the increasing popularity of social network sites, few people are currently using them to gather and share health information.
    • 39% of e-patients use a social networking site like MySpace and Facebook and, of those, only a small portion have used it for healthcare conversations.
    • 12% of e-patients use Twitter or another service to share updates, yet few have posted comments, or info about health or medical matters.
    • Adults between the ages of 18 to 49 are more likely  to participate in social technologies related to health. As younger adults face more health care questions and challenges, they may turn to the tools they have sharpened in other contexts of their lives to gather and share health advice.
  • Internet users report a surge of interest in information about exercise and fitness, jumping from 21% in 2002 to 38% –  This also ties to their interest in searching for information about weight loss/control (24% of adults).
  • In addition to fitness, other health topics of interest include a specific disease or medical problem (49% of adults) a medical treatment or procedure (41%), Prescription or over-the-counter drugs (33%), Alternative treatments or medicines (26%), and Depression, anxiety, stress or mental health issues (21% of adults, up from 12%)

  • Demographics of e-patients looking for health/medical info are consistent with other studies: Men ( 57%), Women (64% ); White (65%), African Americans (51%), Hispanic (44%); By age: 18-49 (71%), 50-64 (59%), 65+ (27%); and tend to be higher education and income.

Implications for upcoming marketing plans? Here are six to consider:

  1. Depending on your brand’s target, the web should be a growing and significant element of the brand’s media mix. However, “fish where the fish are”–which means keep most of your web dollars in paid search, advertising and other relevant web properties/sponsorships.  If your target is heavily vested in using social media platforms, it’s time to begin dipping your toes in the social media waters so that you are ready and able when the broader population catches up. (5 Phases of SM Planning) Invest in mobile learning as a tool for providing incentives, encouraging greater social interactions and adherence.

  2. Make it easy for consumers to discuss what they learn from you with their friends,  family and doctor. Include sharing platforms where ever possible; make it interesting.

  3. Focus on making the most of the patient/physician conversations as the physician remains the gatekeeper to new starts and switch.–And since only 5-20% of the prescriptions are in play (IMS article), optimizing these conversations is critical to success.

  4. Dig into target opportunities…Of that roughly 20% of volume available each month–which segments are most likely to make it on to your product and which offer the greatest patient value? Are budgets and programs aligned?

  5. ‘Surround’ your consumer with appropriate off line and online media and marketing programs–People get their information from multiple sources and each provide a different value.  People are looking for personalized information, and to engage in two-way dialgoue. Also consider the areas of interest ie health and fitness, weight loss, depression etc.

  6. Social Media Networks for healthcare are still largely in their infancy. But they may offer a great opportunity to identify and engage “Consumer Opionion Leaders”. Do you know who your key COLs are? Do you have plans to engage and learn with them? (Interesting work done by WEGO Health in this space)

Other thoughts? Please share here or on twitter.