Health Marketing Is Cursed

Some would say health marketing is cursed because it is meets the criteria of the "Triumvirate Chinese Curse" of uncertain origin (and by uncertain, I mean that Wikipedia said so). Do any of these conditions sound familiar?

1) May you live in interesting times
2) May the government be aware of you
3) May you find what you are looking for

It looks like I'm trying too hard to be clever, but I honestly believe that our industry has hit the dollar slot machine here. Instead of moaning about the misfortune, health marketers should understand the curse and take full advantage of the opportunities it offers.

We Live In Interesting Times

This is the decade when we officially live in parallel universes of healthcare. In the same afternoon in America, you can be told that there should be boards appointed to determine the most effective treatment for a condition applicable to broad groups and that we have just discovered another genetic marker that makes diagnosis and treatment a very individual issue.



You are now just as likely to have a doctor diagnose you with H1N1 by using a nasal swab test to identify the virus as you are to get a diagnosis based on your symptom history alone. In these times, we have supplements with blockbuster sales making promises that Wild West hucksters would laugh at, and we have people walking around with transplants of their own bladders that were grown in a laboratory. Yes, we are cursed.

The first CMO I worked with in the late glory days of CNET used to say "steer into the prejudice." For health marketers, steering into this time of chaos means having permission to change formulas. Transitions between old and new models always take longer than anyone imagines, and that is the good news. If your idea of growing share was to focus completely on one channel because that's how it always worked, give yourself permission to see new opportunities that may be incubating now.

Look at the seeking of health information. We have doctors using the same search engines, typing in the same search strings, and landing on the same sites that consumers use. At the same time, some very confident consumers are digging through medical journals and conference proceedings. Consumers are asking surgeons what type of stent they are planning to use and if the brand of knee joint is the same as the one they gave Aunt Susan. Beat the curse and invest in the insights from both channels. Are there interactions between the professional and consumer channels that spell material lift (shared concerns, popular myths, etc.)?

The Government is Aware of Us

The FDA hearings in November 2009 and the record number of warning letters sent last year should reassure health marketers that our government has not left us to fend for ourselves. It's easy to debate the relevance, effectiveness, or even purpose of some aspects of the regulatory environment but I think this curse is broader than marketing. We have a tech-savvy administration embracing mobile phones for health with the TEXT4BABY program, pioneers in public health with and its (the administration's?) remarkable push on Twitter. See how aware the government is of our industry?

Heck, our government is all about healthcare now, and I can assure you it will be a system as special as the people who made it. I'm reminded of the words of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's brother, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel at the 2009 TEDMED conference. I'm paraphrasing here, but he said that it is unlikely we will be able to simply adopt another country's healthcare system because the American people have values, needs and desires that are not identical to any other country. We'll need to evolve an American healthcare system.

Again, this is the time to embrace the positive aspects of governmental attention. Many of us took full advantage of the FDA social media hearings, and we are all eager to see safe and effective treatments in the marketplace while encouraging the discovery of new frontiers disease eradication with an engaged public.

I can tell you from firsthand experience that the kind of civic engagement that brought this administration to power is the new reality for any marketer who needs to connect with the public. Ultimately, it will be leadership by example. Our industry can and should demonstrate that an engaged, informed patient is a more cost-effective patient in the system. This curse will only be lifted by such bravery.

We Are Finding What We Are Looking For

It sounds more like a U2 song than a curse, but for health media companies and marketers, every day we get better at finding what we are looking for. At the JP Morgan Healthcare conference in San Francisco a few weeks ago, I heard one of the major corporate responsibility officers confess that the margin and opportunity in Phase III trials has changed forever -- in part, because of the shift to biologics and their smaller scale trials but also that margins are getting thinner as trial recruiting gets more efficient and transparent. Finding a patient in all but the rarest conditions has never been easier or less expensive. The growth of social media, cause marketing, and low-friction advocacy means we will find or be found in the world of those engaged in their health.

As an industry, we can complain about the curse and wish to go back to the good old days when small molecules taken after meals was the business and the market could be made in the 30-second spot between sports and weather on the evening news. Or, we can steer into the prejudice and view this curse as the greatest opportunity of all.

5 comments about "Health Marketing Is Cursed".
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  1. Dan Dunlop from Jennings, February 19, 2010 at 12:23 p.m.

    Excellent post. These are, indeed, interesting times!

  2. Chris Conderino from CC Media and Marketing, February 19, 2010 at 1:32 p.m.

    I've been in health marketing for 10 years now and love it despite the tedious, long-protracted gauntlet involved in bringing information and treatments to the consumer. As in any industry there can be irresponsible, deceptive companies misleading the public, but overall I have found the healthcare industry, along with the government to be diligent in the public trust. The result has been the growth of an industry large enough to fund unbelievable advancements in medicine and responsible for creating an educated consumer. Dr Emanuel is right; the American consumer has high expectations; the highest from Healthcare. That must be recognized and supported from all constituencies.

  3. Ted Smith from HealthCentral, February 19, 2010 at 5:43 p.m.

    Thanks for the comments. There is no doubt that health is truly one of the best places in both media and marketing. It will be interesting to see where consumer values fit in whatever Healthcare reform results. I'm optimistic that all aspects of our industry can be better served by having more vested parties with more transparency.

  4. Barry Dennis from netweb/Omni, February 19, 2010 at 7:12 p.m.

    Yes, but like all of us in Marketing, your product must have some redeeming value, some reason for
    "people to care."
    Health Care is heading in the wrong direction. Cloud Health-Home Health management that is Consumer-directed), offers some hope, but Luddites and government bureaucracy must help, not hinder.

  5. Casey Quinlan from Mighty Casey Media LLC, March 26, 2010 at 2:25 p.m.

    If there's one industry desperate for lean/agile intervention, that's health care. The tri-fracted nature of the market - patient, provider, and payer - combined with the blanket of regulation has created a bloated system that doesn't serve any of those three silos well. The web and social media have opened communication channels that break those silos. The government is aware of us, and we might just get what we seek: better health, lower health care costs, and better access. Win/win/win.

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