Paging Doctor Google

Nearly three months ago I made the decision to pursue another professional opportunity. After five years in the B2B trenches, I accepted a position with a healthcare advertising agency. It was a good move personally; a great challenge professionally.

When I discussed my new role with friends and industry colleagues, many voiced their concerns:

“The healthcare space, huh? You’ll have your work cut out for you.”

“Good luck getting anything cool through med-legal review!”

And (my personal favorite)…

 “Hah, sucka!”

I was undeterred, though. Perhaps naivete and hard-headedness had gotten the best of me, but I was going to prove them wrong. I can crack healthcare. I can talk sense to my new clients. There’s too much opportunity across search and social channels to ignore.

Surely, the healthcare marketing world sees that opportunity too.

Proof Point #1: Google Symptom Search



Two weeks ago I wrote about semantic search, and how Google in particular has begun dissecting the intent behind symptom-related queries. “Symptom search” presents possible health conditions to users who search for specific symptoms they, or a loved one, are experiencing. I wrote that the “traditional ten blue links have been deemphasized in favor of possible answers to the user’s direct question. These types of interactions appear to be the future of search.”

Google’s symptom search is a clear indication of the times in which we live. People get sick, and then turn to Google for answers. There is a ubiquity to the data that surrounds us, perpetually a query and click away. It’s convenient, private, and lightning-fast. No waiting to see the doctor, and no need to produce proof of insurance or co-payment. Doctor Google is in, and he’s seeing patients.

The biggest issue I see with symptom search, though, is the potential to minimize a patient’s self-discovery process. Because Google is returning possible ailments, will users stop at the results page, or will they continue on and click through to trusted online authorities to shape an understanding of their condition? It seems that those who rely exclusively on the results from Doctor Google could end up with misdiagnosis and mistreatment if the fail to seek a qualified medical opinion as well.

Then there’s the concern over the “findability” of legitimate medical authorities online. With so much being filtered through the medical-legal review process, what is presented is either diluted or come with many caveats. The results may not connect with consumers in the ways originally intended.

Plus, with the rise of peer-to-peer dialogue facilitated by social media, symptom search is likely drawing from content authority signals that aren’t entirely authoritative themselves. There’s opportunity then -- if not a moral obligation -- for legitimate healthcare voices to go all-in across search and social.

Proof Point #2: Use Of Social On The Rise

Which leads me to the overall influence of social media in this equation. I was recently introduced to a brand new survey from PwC Health Research Institute, “Social Media ‘Likes’ Healthcare.” It’s a fairly extensive, and eye-opening research piece that sheds light on how consumers treat medical conditions in the age of social media. Distilling the research into a few relevant sound bites:

  • 33% of U.S. consumers are comfortable using social media channels for health-related information
  • 41% of U.S. consumers are likely to share information with healthcare providers via social media; 28% are likely to share information with drug companies.
  • Healthcare organizations are slow to adapt to the current social landscape. Community websites yield 24 times the volume of activity across social media than healthcare organizations.

It seems there’s a fundamental disconnect between healthcare brands and their consumer audiences. The marketplace has clearly gone social; healthcare brands are the laggards.

The PwC study later acknowledges: “Health organizations have an opportunity to use social media as a way to better listen, participate in discussions, and engage with consumers in ways that extend their interaction beyond a clinical encounter."

So after three months, I’m still undeterred. I’ve faced similar “slow to adopt” challenges during my tenure in the B2B space. There are hefty legal and regulatory hurdles to overcome, clearly, but reshaping best practices is that great professional challenge I signed up for.

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