In Sickness and In Health

Each day 10 million Americans go online in search of wellness information

As consumers have adapted to advanced computer technologies, embracing new digital gadgets for work and play, more and more people are using online sources to educate themselves about health care topics, drugs and various ailments.

For instance, 116 million American adults used the Internet last year to find health information versus 41 million in 2001, according to a February 2007 eMarketerreport about pharmaceutical online marketing. Of those, 70 million people were looking for pharmaceutical information. Daily, nearly 10 million Americans look for health information online, according to a recent Pew Internet & American Life survey.

The majority of those online health information seekers generally start with a search engine, and eMarketer projects that search advertising will make up 42 percent of online budgets this year with total search ad spending reaching $410 million.

For drug companies that have been monitoring consumers and their data-gathering habits, however, keyword search marketing programs may actually be less important than other Web ads, says Larry Mickelberg, senior vice president of marketing at MBC (Medical Broadcasting Company), an interactive health and pharmaceutical agency based in Philadelphia which was acquired by Digitas and merged into its new unit, Digitas Health in April.

Tools from Google, Yahoo and others help companies mine for data, and now the key is to build better, more targeted and helpful places online, he says. Insights gained from analytics have helped drug marketers become “more responsive” to consumer search behaviors, he adds.

“We already know what people want, so we don’t have to buy keywords any more,” he says.

In general, while direct-to-consumer (DTC) drug advertising on TV ranks the highest among consumers in terms of brand recognition, and hits the widest audience, online advertising is viewed by marketers as more effective in that it hits a smaller, but much more targeted audience, with people specifically looking for drug or health information instead of getting it on TV whether or not they need it.

Most recently, drug makers have closely watched health care social networks in marketing to consumers. One example is, a Website offering emotional support for teens with cancer and their parents. The site has an option to participate in message boards and also become part of the live chat and meet online for 90 minutes a week, in addition to other features, such as a section called “Cancer, School & You” which offers advice on going back to school, common problems in dealing with illness and school, and other helpful tips., part of the nonprofit The Wellness Community, isn’t sponsored per se by a drug company, but has an educational grant from Amgen’s nonprofit arm, The Amgen Foundation. is a similar social network health site, but one which offers insights into dozens of different ailments from allergies to cardiac issues to women’s health, and it acts as a clearinghouse for more than 500 online support groups.

Watching the dynamics of these social networks and observing how personalities evolve on these sites can be valuable for drug marketers. At the same time, it’s dangerous for pharmaceutical companies to sponsor sites like these, where they have little control over what users say. “Everyone wants to be involved, although it’s too risky for a drug company to actually sponsor a social network,” says Mickelberg.

One online tactic that continues to evolve is drug marketers’ use of video. For Abilify, a prescription drug used in patients who are diagnosed as manic with bipolar disorder, Bristol-Myers Squibb has mixed standard drug information and patients’ personal stories via video on its Web site.

For example, within a more standard-looking drug site with text on the drug itself, side effects and FAQs is a “Personal Stories” section, which shows video of Joshua, a young man who describes being bipolar, how it affected his life, his studies in college, treatment, and what led to his diagnosis at 21 years old — the typical age for a worsening of symptoms and diagnosis.

Johnson & Johnson/McNeil, for its drug for children’s’ ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), Concerta, uses video of a nurse on to take visitors through the site’s information.

Roche, meanwhile, has been experimenting with an unbranded Web site launched in October 2005 to raise awareness of oral forms of chemotherapy. Tom Wagner, vice president and account group supervisor at Digitas Health, says that the site was designed for both patients and loved ones as well as health care professionals.

Also using streaming video, Roche’s differs from the other sites in that it provides information on all oral chemo treatments, even those made by competitors.Other unbranded drug/health sites tend to omit full listings of competing FDA-approved drugs.

For example, information on Xeloda, which is Roche’s only oral chemotherapy drug, is not given priority on the site over other oral chemo or hormonal cancer Nancy Powell, interactive marketing manager (specialty care oncology) at Roche, says that her group found that among patients and consumers, most think of chemotherapy as something offered by infusion in a hospital or doctor’s office and that there was a low level of awareness of oral chemotherapy options.

With cancer being one of the most searched health topics on the Web, Powell said that in creating the site with MBC/Digitas (now Digitas Health), who does the searching was broken up into four groups: newly diagnosed, in remission, searches done by caretakers, and patients no longer in remission.

Between the high amount of online research done on cancer (Powell says that about 17 million searches on breast cancer alone are performed in a given month), and the sensitivity of the subject, online is emerging as one of the more effective venues for cancer and chemotherapy information and advertising. While TV is most useful for DTC campaigns for “lifestyle” drugs like Viagra and sleeping pills such as Ambien, or drugs to treat more benign ailments like allergies and arthritis, Powell says that cancer is generally too sensitive a topic for a TV ad.

Powell adds that people become aware of OralChemoAdvisor through Roche’s online banner ads, some offline ads and also through direct search.

Other than including information on Roche’s own oral chemotherapy drug, the company flags the site pages with a subtle logo, along with a “Get information on Roche chemotherapy” link to its branded Web site for Xeloda.

Roche is considering similar low-key efforts for other drug categories.

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