Mapping Health Search To The Patient Journey

Earlier this year I wrote a column, Paging Doctor Google, where I noted my recent career move into the healthcare marketing space. There are several adjectives I could use to describe my to-date experience in this new field -- “challenging” would be definitely be chief among them. My perception heading in was that the marketing and advertising world was divided between B2C and B2B communications. You either market to consumers or businesses. Simple enough, right?

My subsequent experiences have caused me to rethink that mentality, and place healthcare marketing in its own class. It’s a more nuanced mash-up of both B2C and B2B, where success often depends on connecting with each audience in unique ways. It’s fundamentally different too because of the restrictive legal and regulatory guardrails that have been set up. Trust me, it’s just different; this space even has its own vocabulary.



Search marketing in the healthcare realm is not immune to these distinctions, either. Just as numerous studies have concluded that search plays a prominent role across all phases of the B2C and B2B buying cycles, so too has search proven critical to both patient and healthcare practitioner (HCP) audiences. The “buy cycle” is simply replaced by the “patient journey.” They’re effectively the same, but then again, different -- at the same time.

The patient journey often begins with symptom-related searches. You have a sore throat, fever, or dizziness. You feel sick and so you turn to search engines to learn more and begin to self-diagnose. That may later lead you to a visit with your family doctor, or primary care physician (“PCP” as we like to call it in the biz). The PCP may diagnose you there, or refer you to a specialist; a prescription may or may not be written. You go home and perform additional research online. If you were referred to a specialist, there will likely be some lag time between specialist referral and appointment – more time to perform additional research.

Depending on the particular symptoms and disease state, this type of discovery dynamic can occur for years.

It’s an interesting journey to explore, too, because of the independent research + interaction with a healthcare practitioner at various inflection points along the way. There’s self-education, augmented with professional counsel, augmented again with more self-education. In many ways, it reminds me of some of the hypotheses we voiced at my previous agency about the true nature of the B2B purchase process (or funnel as it was often referred to): that no two experiences are really alike and there’s structured chaos throughout.

And that communications chaos includes the HCP audience, too. Throughout the “patient” journey, numerous HCPs may contribute to the care of the patient. According to recent data from Google and Manhattan Research, search engine use is high among HCPs at the point of care – meaning that search engines do have an important role in the diagnosis and treatment of patients. The expression “Doctor Google” seems very apropos in light of this insight.

The implications of these behaviors require healthcare-focused search marketers to architect content and keyword-targeting strategies along identified patient journeys, directed toward the many distinct audiences who are likely to navigate (or co-navigate) the path. Patients and their loved ones (possibly their caregivers) are certainly present throughout, searching for information ranging from symptoms to treatment expectations. PCPs, nurses, and specialist HCPs (thoracic surgeons, for example) will come in and out of that journey, too, forcing added depth and complexity to strategies that attempt to reach “HCPs” broadly.

This mash-up creates a unique communications dynamic, and no channel is more prevalent throughout than search. Dissecting the subtleties of search queries, and fulfilling the users’ needs with appropriate content along the way has definitely presented me with a fundamentally different challenge.



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  1. Lois Wingerson from United Business Media, September 12, 2012 at 2:08 p.m.

    Welcome to the house of mirrors, Ryan! Naturally you focus more on the general public, but as you point out, search is also vastly important to medical professionals. As a B2B medical communications company, we at UBM Medica use insights from our proprietary search engine, SearchMedica, to guide both marketing and content decisions. Clinical keyword analysis is a science unto itself, because Google can't easily distinguish doctor-users from patients (although we can). Trying to determine intent in a search by a medical professional is a far different matter than in commerce. The long tail is far more important than the most popular keywords, because doctors see patients with an incomprehensible variety of combinations of conditions. This makes keyword marketing a special challenge, because the client wants to target searchers who may not know the name of the product, who may use an esoteric query, and who are not likely to find the clients' message on the patient-directed websites that rank highest in Google for a generic term such as "diabetes".

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