The rise of patient power

Pharmaceutical companies need to join in the conversations on health taking place online.

Working in such a highly regulated industry like healthcare can often make it hard to implement new ways of communicating. Untested territory and a perceived lack of control make those with a responsibility for monitoring regulatory compliance nervous. The pharmaceutical industry has been struggling to engage widely in digital comms. There are innovators but many are lagging behind, stifled by a perceived lack of guidance, process or the fear of something going wrong.

For the rest of the healthcare community, digital and social comms are flourishing. Radical ideas and innovation are coming from those within and outside of healthcare. Health has always been a core focus for the internet and it is often humorously said that it challenges the adult entertainment industry for share of voice. These days people are engaging with health online with increasing sophistication.

At a recent meeting of Pioneers in Digital Health, we learned from experts that, of internet users, 72 per cent of patients search for medical information before or after a doctor's visit. This is not restricted to the young and the middle and upper classes, as more than 30 million people of all ages now access the internet every day. Seventy-three per cent of English households have broadband, not to mention mobile devices, which are predicted to be the way users will use the internet by 2014. More than two-thirds of European doctors own a smartphone and nine out of ten doctors access the internet for health information in an office/clinical setting.

Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli of Patients Know Best reminded us that patient-held records are already here, as NHS maternal notes and child personal health records are used by the patient to link siloed health services. The patient is the only person who turns up to all the appointments and many want their records so their own unique symptoms and characteristics are assessed together. The ability of NHS and healthcare professionals to engage patients and their families using digital methods has shown that it can be effective in the day-to-day process of booking appointments, but also empower patients to manage their chronic illness and share information about management and care.

The power is moving to the patient and this can make stakeholders nervous, but fundamentally it is about basing the patient-healthcare professional relationship on trust, authenticity and shared decision-making. These principles affect the doctor-to-patient relationship and everyone in the healthcare ecosystem, including the NHS and the pharmaceutical industry; no longer is there b2b or b2c type comms - it is people-to-people.

We as an industry need to take a look around, take inspiration from other industries such as financial services and other healthcare providers and understand how others engage with their customers with trust and authenticity while still applying the regulatory process.

There has been progress in the development of scientific methods to improve understanding of the people you want to communicate with, to improve the relevance and the effectiveness of digital comms. Companies can feel more secure that the tools to measure the effectiveness of digital comms are available, many of which can be considered tried and tested.

Now is the time for pharmaceutical companies to join the conversation. The tools and experience are available to help them understand how to join in while maintaining regulatory compliance with humanity.


Do you see a distinction between your personal and professional use of social media?

Facebook should be for friends only, LinkedIn for professional contacts and Twitter to share thought leadership and build a personal brand.

How would you deal with a Twitter account spoofing one of your clients?

I would approach the spoofer and explain the potential risks associated with confusing people where the safety of medicines and health are concerned.

Which film title best sums up the spirit of your agency?

The Incredibles.

Ritesh Patel is global head of social and digital media at Chandler Chicco Companies.



From PRWeek's Digital thought leader supplement November 2011

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