Healthcare Marketing Insight from New Pew Report [Health Online 2013]

Have you ever gone online specifically to try to figure out what medical condition you or someone else might have? American adults who answer “yes” to this question now have proven company … as in 35% of them.

What does this figure and other new patient search data mean to the health organization that is trying to boost branding and capture market share from its competitors? In fact, healthcare marketers can learn plenty from the just-released Pew Internet report, “Health Online 2013.”

Let’s start with select highlights (followed by my comments):

  • 8 in 10 online health inquiries start at a search engine
  • 59% of U.S. adults say they have looked online for health information in the past year.
  • 35% of U.S. adults say they have gone online specifically to try to figure out what medical condition they or someone else might have.
  • Half of the former followed up with a visit to a medical professional

One obvious implication of the previously documented prevalence of health condition/treatment searches: Some percentage of those who follow up with doctors after conducting online diagnoses are going to visit a given hospital/doctor for the first time. For these patients, your website’s content (or social network visibility) may have been the trigger that convinced them to seek out your organization for care. We already know from other studies that 61% of patients visit 2 or more hospital websites before converting, and 21% of 18–24-yr.-olds follow healthcare providers on social networks. The sites that give patients answers to the questions they’re looking for—whether about actual health conditions or just the conditions of the facility—stand to gain trust over those cross-town rivals who don’t.

On hospital/doctor reviews and “survivor stories”:

  • 30% of Internet users have consulted online reviews or rankings of health care services or treatments.
  • 26% of Internet users have read or watched someone else’s experience about health or medical issues in the past year.

To serve these reviewers of third-party and P2P ratings, encourage your satisfied patients to give their opinions on doctor/hospital review sites like; leave comments on your doctor’s/center’s own Facebook or LinkedIn pages; share stories about patient-provider experiences in writing or on video to publish on your website or YouTube channel; and create communities/forums for patients to share such stories with each other on your website or social media, giving them tools for engagement.

On restricted content:

  • 26% of Internet users who look online for health information say they’ve hit pay walls. Among those, just 2% say they paid for access, while 83% tried to find the same information somewhere else and 13% gave up

The conclusion is obvious: Don’t make healthcare users pay for information unless you’d rather they go to a competitor. Or a neutral third-party. Or give up. At best, they’re leaving your site when they might otherwise stay. At worst, they’re turned off to your entire site by the gate and favor the content (and potentially services) of your closest rival.

Who’s hunting for online diagnoses in the USA?

  • Women > men
  • People with more education
  • Younger adults (i.e. under 50 years of age) > older
  • Wealthier adults (in households earning $75,000+)

As stated previously, half of these “online diagnoser” searchers will then go see a doctor.

More implications for healthcare marketers:

1. Design your website and social network activity with women in mind.

This doesn’t mean ignore men, but it does mean you should be thinking about ways you can cater more effectively to women, e.g. in color/image choices in visual design; in messaging language; in general topics; in whom gets targeted; on which networks are targeted for engagement and promotion.

2. Remember the younger adults.

Though they may not do the lion’s share of healthcare consumption, they will one day. You should earn their loyalty today in order to pay dividends tomorrow. This group is the most active online [link to previous post] and tech-savvy in general, so consider your mobile presence, app development, social media activity and SMS (text) capabilities.

Side question: Is Google a good diagnostic tool?
Susannah Fox, the report’s co-author, said that while the new study did not examine the accuracy of Google as a diagnostic tool, a 2007 British Medical Journal study did (via The Wall Street Journal). That study asked if users queried symptoms, did Google’s results compare favorably to a doctor’s likely diagnosis? The authors determined the answer was “yes.” Score 1 for Google as a diagnostic tool (at least as of 2007). Does the fact that this study was conducted in 2007 count against it? I’d argue “no,” with the widely held industry consensus that Google’s search results generally tend to be more accurate now than 5 years ago. If anything, the results might be more accurate today, although I’d like to see a new study bear this out.

At any rate, Pew Internet has just given US healthcare organizations more insight into what their patients—and prospective patients—are doing online. Marketers would be wise to consider this information when creating or refining web-based designs, projects and campaigns.


Photo courtesy of Renee Viehmann via Flickr.

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