Patients do not voluntarily search for health information online

As a marketer it’s important to be able to take a step back and look at the marketing environment from a patients perspective.   Over the last couple of weeks, for example, consumers have read:

  • That up to 40% of all published clinical trial studies may have omitted key information on drug effectiveness and side effects.
  • That long term use of some medications may lead to new health problems.
  • That in order to be an empowered patients you need to challenge the information your doctor gives you and become a “bad patient.”
  • That your physician may not always give you test results and therefore you need to follow up with her/him to find out if there are any potential problems.

So now in addition to worrying about your job and the value of your house you have to “take charge” of your own health and can’t necessarily rely on a health care professional who has to see as many patients as possible to make ends meet.  This is being an empowered patient?

As I have written many times that consumers do not voluntarily search for health information.  The search usually starts with a trigger such as a diagnosis or a physician symptom.  Once they enter the word the searching for health information more questions arise and thus they have to spend a lot of time trying to both understand what is being said and what is going on.

I still remember the conversation I observed during some research earlier this year when the moderator asked the group “what kind of information did you find?”  One woman who was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer said she was overwhelmed with “the quantity of information”, both good and bad.

There is a real opportunity for marketers to help patients connect with each other to learn and share information as well as give them essential sources of good credible information.  It’s not enough today to talk about your drug and clinical trials you need to go deeper with tools like patient testimonials and information from your physician thought leaders that provide clear and concise insights.

Slowly patients are being forced to become empowered patients.  If you have a diagnosis or are concerned about aches and pains the rule of thumb might be “do your homework” or else you could be at the mercy of medical system that little regard for patients emotional feelings.  The gap has to be bridged if pharma is to regain trust with consumers and marketers have to be able to put themselves in a consumers environment and ask “what can we do to solve their problems?”

Richard Meyer is Executive Director/Principal at Online Strategic Solutions and blogs at World of DTC

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  • Jill Arnold

    “…consumers do not voluntarily search for health information. The search usually starts with a trigger such as a diagnosis or a physician symptom.”

    I would agree with this for the most part. The gap you mentioned between “pharma” and consumers is one of many gaps that need to be bridged. My thought is to change practice and initiate meaningful reform rather than use marketing to slap a Band-aid on the issue of the breakdown in trust, which I think is what you’re recommending in your concluding sentence (“what can we do to solve their problems?”).

  • WarmSocks

    As one of those patients who has turned to the internet for medical information, I would say there’s a very good reason for that. Patients want to know what’s going on and doctors don’t tell us. People are given a diagnosis with no information: “You have disease x; take these pills and come back for follow-up in two months,” is not sufficient.

    What is disease x? What will these pills do? When will I feel better? How long will it take to be cured? Is this contagious – will my family end up sick, too? What happens if I don’t take the pills? Are there other treatment options?

    So you start searching and discover that you’ve been diagnosed with an incurable disease. Doctors don’t know what causes it or how to cure it. They can’t even guarantee effective symptom management. You’d better take those pills because if you don’t, you’ll probably be in a wheelchair in 5-10 years. There are things you can try to help yourself out, but the doctor didn’t bother to tell you any of those things.

    How hard would it be to hand the patient a short brochure, or let patients sit in the exam room and watch a five-minute educational video so they have some idea what’s going on when they walk out of the doctor’s office?

    Patients go looking for information because we’re not getting it from our doctors.

  • Smart Doc

    The Internet still really, really sucks as a conduit of legitimate medical information. Big time on-line misinformation and quackery is rampant.

    My more informed patients use the Mayo Clinic and (yes) Wikipedia.

    • WarmSocks

      Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins, Up-To-Date, MedicineNet, and are all decent online sources of information. It would be nice if doctors would at least give us these as a place to start looking.

  • Margalit Gur-Arie

    If patients are expected to become “empowered consumers” of health care services, then “trust” is exactly what we are wanting to eliminate.
    It is completely beyond my mental abilities to comprehend why physicians, as a professional group with a distinguished history, are sitting back and allowing themselves to be reclassified into the same category as car salesmen…..

    • gzuckier

      well, judging from the most recent news items, a large number of doctors are sending women for surgical breast biopsies when needle biopsies would be sufficient. the take home message being, don’t believe everything your doctor tells you, necessarily. but that’s nothing new; as long as I can remember, “get a second opionion” has been an axiom. my most recent medical encounter, i got four opinions, all different, for something not very compex. i had been hoping to find at least two doctors who agreed. all the medical knowledge in the world wouldn’t help me evaluate/diagnose my own case, so i just went with the doc i had the best gut feeling about. who apparently hit it right on the nose.

  • e-Patient Dave

    Hi Richard – I don’t think we’ve met.

    The points you raise here seem perfectly sensible, but the conclusion in the headline seems way out of touch with reality, IF you meant it literally and absolutely. I’m sure you’re familiar with all of Pew’s data saying that the vast majority of consumers do indeed seek health information online, yes? So we must have some kind of disconnect.

    Sometimes I find that my headlines are changed when I submit to another site, so maybe that’s what happened here?

    • Kevin

      I came up with the headline, apologies for the confusion.


      • e-Patient Dave

        Thanks, Kevin – I’m SO glad we-all are learning to ask questions openly, rather than jumping to conclusions. As you probably saw on Twitter, some people (including me) were going “Huh??”, but also saying “Let’s find out.”

        Thanks for the good dialog, neighbor –

  • Marc Kaplan

    Thoughtful comment, and I agree with the author’s assessment but not his conclusion. Pharma isn’t the appropriate source of information for the diagnosed patient. As a public relations professional who has worked both for pharma and non-profits, pharma cannot seriously and in a sustained fashion bridge the gap between self-interest and empowering patients. I suggest that patient groups need to step up and do more/better in this field.Patients — current and former — know better than many physicians the latest modalities, procedures, and protocols. If I were diagnosed with a disease, would I turn to the company who manufactured drugs for its treatment or other patients who have traveled the same road I am about to travel?

  • gzuckier

    even these hallowed pages have their fair share of nonsensical medical info posted.

    unfortunately, any advice to america to “do your homework” will have the same effect as giving the same advice to schoolkids; maybe 10-20% will indeed do so with due diligence, the rest will avoid it as much as they think they can get away with. the audience here is kind of slanted towards the first group, so we forget.

  • Carolyn Thomas

    As always, it’s important to “consider the source”.

    In this case, the author is sharing his observations from the perspective of a Big Pharma “Direct To Consumer” marketing consultant (by the way, DTC “Ask your doctor” ads are illegal here in Canada, and in virtually all other countries except the U.S. and New Zealand. You might wonder why that is). And please Richard – could we get a proofreader before your next post runs here?

    As for the red flag statement: “…There is a real opportunity for marketers to help patients connect with each other to learn and share information as well as give them essential sources of good credible information…”

    Oh, I’ll just bet there ARE indeed such marketing opportunities.

    But first we’d have to ask why would patients turn to drug companies for “good credible information”? The inherent conflict of interest and marketing-based medical info to be found there is highly suspect. No wonder we prefer online resources that do NOT stand to gain financially by providing health information to us. In fact, my own curiosity to “follow the money” leads me to immediately scroll down to the conflict of interest disclosure statements of study authors in all medical research “news” reported out there.

    We know that drug companies spend twice as much on marketing as they do on research and development. The Wall Street Journal ran an interesting breakdown on the scope of this marketing budget last year, including $4.7 billion spent annually for these Direct-To-Consumer ads, and an additional $400 million on advertising in professional journals. DTC ads on TV accounted for almost 62% of drug company ad spending, print ads made up 35% and online ads 4%. More on this at: “How Big Pharma Spends $20 Billion A Year On Marketing Their Drugs To You” on ‘The Ethical Nag: Marketing Ethics For The Easily Swayed’ at:

    Savvy patients are of course interested in learning more about their own health. This certainly doesn’t mean that we are being “forced” to become empowered patients.

  • Finn

    I turn to pharmaceutical companies for only one kind of information: the package insert. The inherent conflict of interest Carolyn noted above is why I would never seek any other kind of information from them, and why I also seek other sources of information about potential side and long-term effects of any drug I might be prescribed.

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