Big Data Creates A Big Opportunity For Redemption

These days, it seems every headline decrees the power of Big Data. It’s everywhere, from smart electrical grids to dead-on election predictions. Healthcare is no exception. Just consider the Human Genome Project. Another Big Data technology with the power to change everything in the healthcare system (again). Networked electronic medical record (EMR) systems. Adoption is growing quickly across practices nationwide, due to both convenience and requirements. And they hold the promise of helping physicians make better prescribing decisions and, ultimately, hopefully, keeping people healthier. 

But the proliferation of these Big Data systems also signals a sea change in healthcare marketing as we know it. For the first time, it will be possible to track and evaluate the totality of real-world patient outcomes with every product prescribed. Until recently, clinical trials, alongside occasional post-marketing surveillance reports, were the only real data available for judging the worth of a product. These studies represented the promise of a product: the aspirational outcomes generated in near-perfect scenarios where everything from patient type to comorbidities to adherence can be controlled. 



But the rise of networked EMR allows for comparison of the promise with the reality by physicians, patients, and, importantly, payers, with their increasing influence in the world of the Affordable Care Act. No longer will it be possible to market a product based on promises alone. Every product will be held to a new standard. It must deliver in real life under real-world conditions, and marketers will be held accountable. If the newly available data bring to light any significant discrepancy between the product promise (read: marketing materials) and reality (read: actual outcomes), the consequences are potentially disastrous.  

If social media gave the power back to the people by giving them a voice to express their opinions and network en-masse, networked EMRs add hard data to the mix. Soon there will be evidence to fuel the skepticism already simmering throughout social media among individuals and among their healthcare providers. 

Lest we think slow adoption of this technology will save us, know that EMRs will continue to get better, more convenient, more interactive, more functional. Consider IBM’s more recent innovation with Watson, the supercomputer made famous on “Jeopardy.” Fortune reported this week that “by feeding Watson over 600,000 pieces of medical evidence and 2 million pages of text from journals and clinical trials… [oncologists] will soon be able to press an “Ask Watson” button on their computers, and Watson will sift through all that information in just a few minutes to provide recommendations for treatment.” Someday soon, there won’t be any reason for physicians to leave their EMR system to get all the information they need to manage their patients’ health. If we as marketers aren’t there, we will certainly lose relevance.

Many in the healthcare marketing industry are very concerned. They believe this shift may be our undoing. For marketers who fail to adapt to the new reality, this pessimistic view will certainly be their fate. But what if we looked at the opportunity instead? What if we created a different kind of relationship with physicians based on value instead of interruption? 

Physicians’ prescription decisions are the result of years of training, ongoing education, and collaboration with peers. It’s highly unlikely that any physician would see a banner ad in an EMR workflow and change his or her mind, regardless of how compelling the message may be. The prescribing decision has already been made. This type of intrusion may even be viewed as condescending spam, distracting from the very important job at hand of restoring and protecting human health. And this type of relationship – one of interjection and interruption – serves only to reinforce negative perceptions of the pharma industry.  

Let’s be helpful instead. Perhaps even valuable. When physicians choose to prescribe our products, let’s think about providing services at their fingertips that aid in their workflow, or make life easier, or reduce some of the burden, or make taking our products better for patient. These types of actions confer value to and preference for products. Even beyond this immediate benefit, the real long-view upside is that anything that helps physicians help their patients is likely to lead to better outcomes. And in the era of networked Big Data systems and accountable care organizations, outcomes are what really count. Be the product with the best real-world data and prepare to bask in the glow of preference from physicians and payers. Call it a virtuous cycle if you want. Or, just good marketing in a changing world. 

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