Why Are Healthcare Providers & Pharma in Social Limbo?

For the purpose of kicking things off, if we define healthcare at its core as the relationship between the healthcare provider and the patient, there aren’t too many things in this world that are more personal.  Whether the context is one’s life-altering battle with a serious disease like cancer, heart failure, or diabetes, or a trip to the ER to patch you up from a slip on some ice, healthcare is, by definition, emotional, personal and social.

So as I’ve witnessed healthcare providers and life science manufacturers struggle with social business over the past couple of years, I’m left to wonder about the general trepidation.  Of course I’m acutely aware of the risks and liabilities that come into play when these personal, emotional relationships enter the public, digital domain.  But there are already well-established limitations and regulations in place under legislation such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act.  There has no doubt been progress over the last 24 months by providers and manufacturers.  But, they are still years behind patients in their ability to engage socially online.

For several years, the overall healthcare industry was in a bit of a state of limbo, waiting for some further proclamation regarding social media specifically.  This led to a widening gap between patient demand for engagement and healthcare providers’ ability to deliver.

The reality is that patients using social healthcare platforms are nothing new.  Discussion forums, communities and online patient support groups have been around long before Twitter and Facebook.   In fact, according to a 2013 study by Wego Health, 85% of patients surveyed report that online communities (including Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and discussion groups) play some role in their healthcare decisions.

And  while the number of patients engaging on social healthcare platforms is skyrocketing, the number of web-savvy doctors who can meet the expectations of this new digital patient is not.

In another corner of the healthcare industry, pharmaceutical and other life science companies have seen access to healthcare providers (HCP) rapidly diminish over the past decade.  HCPs have less and less time to see all the patients they need to see during a day.  Taking time out of that day to meet with a pharmaceutical rep is analogous to taking money out of the HCP’s pocket.  And those same digitally-savvy patients are garnering influence online. Now patients who see pharma information online by someone they view as influential will likely ask their doctor about this information.

So, when that same Wego Health survey reported the following statistics, it was both no surprise and a clear signal of big opportunity.

The study showed Pharmaceutical companies, Medical Device manufacturers, Hospitals, and Health Insurance companies reported using social media to engage at the following rates:  62%, 50%, 58% and 56% respectively.

All this leads to a couple of pretty clear conclusions about what it will take to win in this environment.

  1. Healthcare delivery organizations need to accelerate their strategy and provide HCPs the tools to manage risk and engage with digitally savvy patients where and when they choose.

  2. Call it Social Selling, Sales 2.0 or whatever, but pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers need to recognize that the buying process, as in virtually every other industry, is controlled by better informed and more connected healthcare providers and patients.

Traditional detailing and medical education techniques are rapidly fading in effectiveness.  This has heightened the need for pharmaceutical and medical sales professionals to leverage the social web to actively listen, engage, and add value to the HCP-patient conversation.

Barry Dalton is SVP, Multi-Channel Customer Engagement at Telerx.com

Photo credit: Jeanmaxounou via Wikimedia Commons