Brand Building

Questions Beneath Questions: Addressing Consumers’ Health Questions and Unspoken Expectations

Fifty-two hours. That’s how many hours the average US consumer spends searching online for healthcare information in a given year, according to Makovsky Health and Kelton’s 2013 survey.[i] This figure stands in stark contrast to the amount of time the average US consumer spends in total with their physician in a given year—one hour.[ii] Getting answers to their health questions, whether the answers are found online or in conversation with healthcare providers, is a reasonable, healthy expectation that consumers have.

And yet, despite the significant amount of time consumers spend searching online for answers to their healthcare questions, as well as the significant investment that pharma marketers commit to websites and social media, pharma-sponsored websites remain among the least frequented online resources. Just 9% of US consumers reportedly visit pharma-sponsored websites (versus 53% who access WebMD, the most frequented online resource).[iii]

Why aren’t consumers going to pharma-sponsored websites as a go-to information source? What can pharma industry partners do to engage consumers in a more meaningful manner during their search for answers to their healthcare questions?

Here are three key observations and recommendations:

Lack of Consumer Awareness of Pharma-Sponsored Websites
With just 9% of consumers having visited pharma-sponsored websites, it goes without saying that there remains a significant lack of consumer awareness. Among these 9%, what is striking is that the top-cited reason why they visited a pharma website was not TV ads but physician referrals.

Therefore, given that patients are more likely to seek answers to their questions from pharma websites when referred there by physicians, tremendous opportunities exist for ensuring field sales and clinical teams are trained to educate physicians and other healthcare providers about the benefits of referring patients to sponsored disease state awareness and drug product websites. Better coordination and pull-through from field teams will lead to increased website traffic, increased answers found for consumer health questions, increased website-based calls to action, and customer engagement.

Consumer Dissatisfaction with Pharma-Sponsored Websites
Medical-Legal-Regulatory (MLR) teams provide important oversight for pharma-sponsored websites, especially regarding Important Safety Information and fair-balance considerations. But MLR teams have also unfortunately become a convenient scapegoat for the pervasive “Think Same” approach seen in many pharma-sponsored websites. However, MLR teams are not to blame for the text-heavy, hunt-and-peck layouts that have passed usability requirements but nevertheless have led to poor user experience for consumers.

Tremendous opportunities exist for digital and brand teams to come alongside their MLR colleagues and develop innovative approaches that incorporate a variety of adult learning theories, digital tools, and designs that would better address consumer health questions, better prepare them for their conversations with their physicians, and equip them for better self-management. Consumer expectations of what a trusted, informative website should be (eg, WebMD or AARP) are quite high and expectations continue to rise because of continual innovations in design and digital interactivity. In order to become a regular part of consumers’ online health search process, pharma-sponsored websites need to not only convey the critical information consumers are looking for but also reflect more innovative designs that better meet consumer expectations.

Skepticism Amid Awareness of Pharma-Sponsored Websites
Underneath consumers’ specific questions regarding their conditions and treatment options, there runs an undercurrent of distrust toward the pharma industry. According to Makovsky Health and Kelton, nearly a quarter of consumers would “never visit a website sponsored by a pharmaceutical company to find information on a specific disease or medication.” This figure rises to 39% when it comes to pharma-sponsored Facebook pages—even for disease awareness.[iv]  These findings are consistent with research from the Peppers & Rogers Group, who found in 2013 that 24% of over 2,400 patients surveyed did not consider pharmaceutical companies to be “trustable.”[v] An additional 42% of patients surveyed were neutral toward the pharma industry. An underlying question, then, from consumers is, “Do pharmaceutical companies focus on profits before patients?” Yet another underlying question from consumers is, “Are pharmaceutical companies providing too much influence over physicians?”  A 2010 Consumer Reports survey of 1,154 adults currently taking prescription drugs found that 69% had this concern.[vi]  Peter Claude of PwC put it succinctly: “It is difficult to comprehend how an industry that has saved so many lives should be held in such low public esteem. Yet in the current climate of distrust, the public is questioning the industry’s motives and practices from sales and marketing to pricing to drug development.”[vii]  So how does this industry distrust translate to the company or individual drug brand level? In an industry report PwC notes that, among 500 consumers surveyed, 78% will consider not just the pharmaceutical product but also the pharmaceutical company’s reputation when given a choice of products.[viii]

Given these deep-seated, underlying consumer questions and skepticism, pharma digital and brand marketing teams need to work more closely with their corporate communications as well as corporate social responsibility teams so that a concerted, multi-channel strategy—including sponsored websites and social media—can be used to address consumers’ explicit, condition, and treatment-specific questions as well as underlying questions regarding trust. Digital and brand teams need to play a more proactive role in engendering and restoring consumer trust.

Fifty-two hours. That’s how many hours US consumers are spending online in a given year, searching for answers to their healthcare questions. Finding credible answers to their questions is a reasonable, healthy expectation that consumers have. Pharma industry partners have opportunities to become a more meaningful part of this online search process and exceed consumer expectations by addressing both explicit and implicit questions from consumers in a trustworthy manner. Engendering greater public trust will take new levels of collaboration between marketing and sales, MLR, corporate communications, and corporate social responsibility teams.

[i] State of healthcare searches on line. Available at: Accessed October 16, 2013.
[ii] 3 visits per year, about 20 minutes average time spent with physician. Makovsky Health and Kelton, 2013; CDC/NCHS National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, 2010.
[iv] Pharma fixed in online traffic patterns, despite distrust: survey. Available at: Accessed October 16, 2013.
[v] Unlocking Patient Engagement by Building Trust. White Paper. Peppers & Rogers Group, 2013. Peppers & Rogers define “trustability” as “proactive trustworthiness” that consists of product and customer competence (“doing things right”) and good intention (“doing the right thing”).
[vi] Patients wary of doctors’ pharma relationships. Available at: Accessed October 16, 2013.
[vii] Press release: consumer and pharmaceutical companies far apart on views of pharma industry. Available at: Accessed October 16, 2013.
[viii] Ibid.
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Hee Jun Rho

Hee Jun Rho

Director, Commercial Strategy and Innovation at Cadient Group
Hee Jun Rho is a Director of Commercial Innovation & Strategy at Cadient, a Cognizant Company, and works with a breadth of healthcare clients to craft digital strategies for their brands. Prior to joining Cadient, Hee Jun developed extensive experience in the Diabetes Therapy Area, having held roles in Software and Healthcare Professional Marketing for Animas and LifeScan, parts of the J&J Diabetes Care Franchise. Hee Jun also draws upon his experience as a former consultant to biopharmaceutical and medical device clients in their new product development, commercial valuations, and strategic assessments. Hee Jun received a Bachelor’s degree in Biology from the Massachusetts Institute of technology and his MBA from Georgetown University.

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