There was a time when a doctor's orders weren't questioned. That's changed. The Internet era has given rise to a better-informed and a more cautious patient who increasingly sees himself as the best guardian of his own and his family's health.
We saw surprising evidence of this a year ago at About.com. For example, most users we surveyed last year did additional online research after getting a diagnosis from the doctor and before filling a prescription. At the time, we put it down to a side effect of the healthcare debate: a public preparing for the decline in quality and access to healthcare. This June, though, we see that the trend has gained momentum. Consumers continue to redefine their relationship to their health providers. Medical advertising is increasingly looked to for patient education on health conditions, new treatment options and drug safety. And advertisements increasingly activate consumers.
This year, more respondents are jumping to search engines following a doctor's appointment (the average length being less than 20 minutes). Three times as many respondents use search specifically to research treatment options, dramatically up since 2009. Of those on prescription drugs in the last six months, only half are likely to "just trust what the doctor says," and reflexively fill their prescriptions. The upside of this perceived decline in trust is patient empowerment. More than two-thirds think they are better armed to discuss their personal health with their physician. Overall, 90 percent of those surveyed reported that having easy access to information enables them to take control of their healthcare decisions.
The relationship of the consumer to ads is also evolving. Consumers use ads as a jumping-off point to research and to qualify product claims. After being exposed to an ad, 60 percent of medical consumers are activated. What is unique about the health and wellness vertical is that it challenges the proprietary relationship of the physician to medical information. But, rather than upending their credibility, it redraws the map with the patient as the catalyst to his own care.
If the patient no longer takes the pronouncements of his GP at face value, he still holds his doctor's expertise in high esteem. Patients credit ads with providing them with information and education to discuss their health profile directly with their doctor (26 percent, up from 17 percent). More than half will discuss a specific medication directly with their doctors, with 15 percent going so far as to ask for a sample or a prescription. While the issue of drug safety and side effects is paramount (58 percent up from 28 percent in 2009), patients are looking for information on a specific condition or disease, as well as tips on how to cope with a malady.
The doctor visit is no longer a final destination. If anything, the instruction at the end of nearly every medical ad -- "Speak To Your Doctor" -- seems to be working. The once unconditional bond between doctor and patient is evolving. We are still looking for reliable information, but we are casting a wider net. This new ecosystem includes friends, family and caregivers, with the citizen researcher (who may or may not be the patient) playing a primary role in extracting information from search, as well as healthcare ads and sharing his findings with his physician. Marketers who recognize the value of this trust ecosystem will find healthcare consumers who are engaged, passionate and empowered as never before.