For a long time, those of us in the highly regulated world of healthcare have been excited observers of interactive communications. We've sat on the sidelines waiting for the right moment to get involved. That moment is now.
As health communicators and marketers, we are great listeners and conversationalists. We've been building relationships with patients and their families, helping them better understand their conditions and fostering better informed conversations with their doctors. As the pendulum has swung toward greater restraint in direct-to-consumer marketing and communications, we've created new ways to educate people. And, perhaps most crucial, we are evolving into an industry that promotes health, not just healthcare products.
This wealth of offline experience provides a strong foundation for ventures into the world of online communications. Healthcare PR pros already have the cornerstone in place: a community of emotionally invested people getting most of their information through interactive media.
People with just about every medical condition use the web to connect, share information, and act on it. They are part of a new breed of "Health-Active Individuals" who don't take doctors' advice at face value, who want to know everything, and who go online to get the facts. Indeed, "looking for health or medical information" was the second most commonly cited online activity after "sending or reading e-mail," according to a 2004 survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
The real news is that these people don't only consume content - they create it and share it with one another. Twenty percent of those seeking health information online turn to consumer-generated sources, according to a 2005 Jupiter Research study. Those who post on message boards and comment on blogs are just the start. For every person participating in an online conversation, at least 15 to 20 more are listening and, presumably, being influenced by it.
But we should be part of the interactive dialogue for more than just the numbers. Some of the health information people in online communities are passing along is accurate, but much of it is not. We have a responsibility to point them to reliable sources. Shielded by anonymity, they also are airing their most personal concerns. By listening well, we can gain insights that we would not be privy to otherwise.
Taking our messages online is also our best hope of reaching teens and 20-somethings, who are accustomed to getting their information online.
With so much to gain, why has it taken us this long to embrace interactive marketing? Because we've been restrained by a keen awareness of our responsibilities, legal and regulatory, as well as the life-altering implications of our work. Yet an inner voice spurs us on: "Sure, healthcare is complicated, but PR is designed to deal with that. Stop worrying, and start communicating!"
Many of us, including the panelists at a recent event held by Edelman and the PRSA Health Academy, feel we should heed that voice. Yes, we have serious obligations, but that shouldn't keep us from seizing a huge opportunity to create a better-informed and healthier world. It's not an either-or situation. We can be part of the interactive world while maintaining the highest standards of ethics and integrity, by being honest and transparent in all of our communications and adhering to our industry's new ground rules.
For starters, we can focus on the following three things:
1. Initiate conversations about interactive communications. Talk with colleagues and clients to find out what they're doing and what they'd like to do online.
2. Become more familiar with interactive tools and consumer-generated content. Visit websites, message boards, and blogs. Good places to start are pharmamkting.blogspot.com and thehealthcareblog.com, both rated highly by The Wall Street Journal.
3. Jump in and take a smart risk. Have a team member post on a message board, identifying himself or herself as a company or brand rep, or start a blog, following company guidelines.
Perhaps someday there will be a comprehensive guide for healthcare marketers who want to engage with people interactively. But we can't wait for it. We need to log on and take part in the online community now.
Nancy Turett is global president of Health at Edelman.