It's not just because of the sweeping changes to national healthcare legislation that are being debated endlessly in Washington (although the outcome of those sessions will almost certainly change the lives of everyone in our field).
No. The real game changer will be the industry's embrace of technology and digital tools. We're about to see healthcare companies become so immersed in the digital world that their business models will be radically transformed.
Think I'm exaggerating?
Consider these innovations.
One New Jersey based company has developed a "Tweet Positioning System," a twitter application that allows users to search for a particular term or product name and identify all the tweets about the subject within a given geographic area (for example, you could search for all the tweets about Scott Brown in the Boston region).
Another UK based company has developed "Didget" a new social network and blood glucose monitoring tool that users connect to via their Nintendo DS. Like any good video game, meeting goals and accomplishing tasks (like hitting glucose level targets) allows users to gain rewards that they can turn in to digital tools and merchandise.
And yet another company is hosting social media summits with the focus on specific disease states like diabetes.
What has changed is these innovations aren't coming from applications development companies or video game designers or event marketers. They are coming from companies that are major players in the healthcare industry.
Specifically, Humana, Bayer and Roche.
Why are these industry giants playing in spaces where you would be more likely to find Silicon Valley Startups or MIT grad students?
The main reason is the healthcare industry is crying out for change. And technology provides the best tools for facilitating that change.
As IBM noted in a recent presentation, our industry " ... will not only make white powders; it will sell a variety of products and therapeutic health packages, as well as a wide range of services to support patients."
That last part, supporting patients, is becoming the core mantra of our business but we are all well aware of the challenges and restrictions that we face when seeking to interact directly with the patients that are our end consumers. Pharmaceutical and insurance companies face regulatory constraints and compliance challenges when communicating with patient groups. And communicating product information or brand messaging to health care professionals is equally tough. In the world of declining sales forces, crowded sales channels, product proliferation and patent expiration, grabbing the attention of a harried doctor or hospital administrator is tougher than ever. The key commodity for gaining attention is trust, something that our industry has not always excelled at. But something that is at the heart of social media and digital communities.
Overcoming organizational resistance to participating in social media is the great challenge for healthcare marketers. But it's a challenge that must be addressed. If companies fail to do so they will cede their competitive edge to the companies that are agile, innovative and brave enough to participate in the conversation. Patients and health care professionals are impatiently waiting for our industry to move in to the digital space. And that impatience is due largely to the fact that they are already there.
As Rohit Bhargava noted in a post on the Ogilvy PR blog in September of last year "Manhattan Research estimated last year (2008) that 88% of all physicians use the Internet to access pharmaceutical, biotech and medical device information. The same report noted that 41% of all the research physicians do takes place online, and that the majority of physicians expect that ratio to double in the coming year." Sites such as Sermo, Ozmosis and SocialMD provide physicians with social networks that are only available to them and their peers and provide great opportunities for dialogue and discussion in a "safe" environment. But forward thinking healthcare marketers should recall that Facebook was once open only to college students. How long will it be before a smart Pharma company purchases one of these networks or creates one of it's own?
Patients are going online in record numbers as well. They're not just seeking information from sites like Web MD or storing medical information on sites like Google Health. They're forming patient communities and social networks centered around their specific disease states and health concerns. And smart healthcare companies are supporting their efforts. CFVoice, a support site for Cystic Fibrosis sufferers sponsored by Novartis is one of the best examples of this new breed of digital offerings that are less about selling drugs and more about helping patients live better lives. Connecting patients with other persons coping with the same health challenges and providing recipes and other lifestyle tips help promote trust and loyalty and provide a real benefit to society in general. These efforts are best served by the instant communications ability of digital offerings and they're definitely the wave of the future for healthcare marketing (as they have been for marketing in numerous other industries).
Of course, resistance in our industry has come from the belief that we must control the discussion, both for the sake of the consumer (Companies want to make sure patients are receiving qualified, professional advice) and for our own liability concerns. The core argument of the recent FDA hearings on Social Media in Pharma marketing was this ..."Who's responsibility is it to monitor the conversations for reports of adverse events and other safety concerns?". Like the children's game of hot potato, it's a task that no one wants. Pharma companies responded that they simply didn't have the manpower or resources to provide the kind of auditing that some government regulators and patient advocacy groups feel they should be conducting. It's been an easy crutch for our industry to point to regulatory concerns as a reason for not fully embracing the digital space. But like it or not, the discussions are already happening. On Facebook, Twitter, those aforementioned physicians social networks and many other platforms. This genie can't be put back in the bottle. And it's only a matter of time until some ambitious lawyer decides to go after a healthcare company for not responding to a blog posting or tweet regarding the negative impact of their product.
Luckily, there is an answer for all these concerns.
As digital development firms (like my own company) continue to lead in developing applications that work with social networks like Twitter and Facebook, healthcare companies will be able to take advantage of a whole new set of digital tools. Tools that will help them participate in online discussions without the crippling concerns that they currently face. Tools that will actively monitor mentions of their services and products throughout the Web and aggregate those disparate pieces of data in to easily consumable products and reports. Tools that will be able to parse those mentions, flag questionable or problematic posts and automatically bring them to the attention of the appropriate parties. This is what industry vet John Mack refers to as "enlightened moderation". Technology like this will turn auditing from a labor intensive process in to a routine maintenance task. And that will allow healthcare companies to take full advantage of the digital and social revolution to bring incredible levels of customer service and added value to patients and HCPs as well.
This implementation of this technology is not around the corner...it's here...now. I know this because companies like Zemoga and Palio are planning it, designing it and building it for the brave thought leaders who see the opportunity as clear as we do.
For the first time in our industry's history, the artificial silos between patients, physicians and healthcare service and product providers will be torn down. And the stage will be set for an open and honest dialogue between every portion of our industry. This discourse will lead to better understanding of patient conditions, HCP barriers and safety and education challenges. And everyone will benefit from it.
Once this happens, we'll be writing a new page in the history of how healthcare works in America.
And people will say that it all started in 2010.
The year that everything changed. I told you so.
DJ Edgerton is CEO of the leading digital innovation firm, Zemoga, and co-founder of Pixels & Pills, a joint service offering between Zemoga and top pharmaceutical marketing company, Palio. Building from Palio’s strong experience in the healthcare marketplace and Zemoga’s proven expertise in the digital realm, Pixels and Pills provides clients with cutting-edge technology supported by deep market, client and medical expertise.
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