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While it’s easy to get excited about new gadgets, remember that the overall goal of mHealth and social media must be to deepen relationships and communication.
While nobody can predict what changes the American Health Care Act will bring, two healthcare trends seem certain to continue under any environment: the move toward more value and outcomes-based care, and health consumers’ growing adoption of digital and social media tools. Though motivated by different forces, I see these trends as deeply intertwined, and predict their continued convergence will have major implications for healthcare communications.
In a fee-for-service environment, everybody is incentivized based on the volume of care they provide. When a previously treated patient returns to the hospital, the hospital gets to perform more services and send a new bill. But increasingly now, doctors and hospitals’ incentives are becoming aligned with the quality of the care and overall population health outcomes. In Medicare ACO arrangements, for example, health systems that cut costs while meeting health benchmarks for their patients get to share in the savings. A patient’s re-admission eats away at profits.
We’re seeing a similar trend in pharma too, where drug companies are experimenting with value-based contracts with insurers that require them to return money if patients fail to achieve expected results. Pressure on pricing is also shifting attention to outcomes.
For providers and drug makers alike, this new environment means it’s no longer enough to simply market and sell treatments. Our industry must also think holistically about patients. If you sell a drug that a patient forgets to take, or if a patient’s poor health habits erode the benefits of his treatment, outcomes will suffer. Factors like adherence and lifestyle become as central to the equation as sales volume and efficacy.
It’s well established that communication skills and regular contact between provider and patient help improve these outcomes. And that’s where the second trend comes in: the rise of mobile health (mHealth) and healthcare social media. Patients are adopting a stunning new range of interactive tools like medication reminder apps, activity trackers, social media channels and online forums to help themselves manage daily health needs. Much has been written about how these tools are empowering patients to become more active participants in their care. But less appreciated is how these digital and social tools can also bring efficiency and scale to healthcare communications. Patient-doctor relationships were once confined to exam room visits and Sunday newspaper columns. Today’s digital world offers hundreds-if not thousands-of additional touch points.
These tools offer tremendous opportunities to deepen relationships and communication, but also add to the skills clinicians, insurers and pharma companies must master.
Let’s take a closer look at the new communication priorities required to thrive in the new value landscape.
Understand patient needs
Drug companies convene patient focus groups to test ad campaigns, but this level of examination can be applied to all parts of the patient experience. Social listening is one powerful tool to accomplish this. You’d be surprised at how much detail people share about their conditions in online forums. Through these messages, we can construct intimate portraits of a condition, including what information people seek at different stages of their journeys and the common pitfalls where their adherence gets disrupted.
Engage directly with consumers
Although more and more healthcare industry companies are becoming active on social media channels, few are truly exploring the possibilities of two-way communications. We can improve by asking open-ended questions on Facebook and then listen to the responses. We can look for people seeking help online, then leverage company expertise to provide answers. We can produce live streaming events that use social media to facilitate dialogue that builds relationships and trust.
We can also help by training doctors-the most trusted figures in the health ecosystem-to be more involved with patient communities on social media. The primary care visit offers doctors a face-to-face opportunity to explain the importance of diet and exercise to patients. But imagine how much more adherent patients might be if the doctor could reinforce this message continually throughout the year? Or how we could improve population health if reminders about routine screenings came from intimately trusted authorities. With strategic use of Twitter, Facebook or Snapchat for educational messaging, this becomes easy-and efficient.
Create content that resonates
The Internet is full of factual information that nobody actually reads because they’re too busy devouring misinformation that’s fun to share and click on. But when health outcomes matter, we must compel patients to tune in to health messaging they might otherwise ignore. We can compete in this battle for mindshare by weaving health issues into evocative narratives of real people, or by expressing complicated scientific concepts in relatable everyday terms. Selecting the right spokesperson is another way to capture attention.
Meet people where they are
We already know that well-run patient service programs help people navigate the obstacles of starting a new treatment. The next step is to make sure these programs integrate seamlessly into patients’ lives. For most demographics, this means optimizing for smartphone use. As mobile messaging continues to grow, we should explore chat extensions for nurse navigator hotlines.
Similarly, it’s important to make sure information and programs are available on the platforms our audiences use most. More pharma companies are establishing branded presences on Facebook, the world’s most popular social media platform. And now that scrolling ISI is available in Facebook ads, it is getting easier for pharma to participate.
Don’t shy away from difficult topics
Increasingly, social media is becoming the place where patients go to sound off about concerns with pricing and access. My colleague Meg Alexander, head of Risk & Reputation Management at inVentiv Health Communications, recommends companies be prepared to communicate about the value their medicines deliver to stakeholders who use Twitter or Facebook to raise concerns about affordability. They must also make out-of-pocket cost assistance information easier to find and simpler to understand. In terms of building relationships, there’s a world of difference between demonstrating you are listening and appearing to dodge difficult questions. Furthermore, patients cite drugs costs as a major factor in nonadherence, so raising the visibility of assistance programs has the potential to affect outcomes.
Don’t Lose Sight of the Human Element
While it’s easy to get excited about new gadgets, remember that the overall goal of mHealth and social media must be to deepen relationships and communication. For example, telemedicine can connect elderly and disabled patients with specialists who would be hard to visit in person. Step counters come with apps that create social communities that encourage participation. Be wary of advances that aim to displace human interaction. The power of these new technologies is realized when there’s a caring, concerned person on each end. A recent study found that simple medication reminder apps did not improve adherence. In contrast, Medisafe, a medication reminder app that alerts family or friends about missed doses, claims 71 percent of users improved adherence after adding its “Medfriend” feature.
As the healthcare system continues its shift towards value-based models, genuine, personal communication will only increase in importance. Where writing a prescription used to be the end of interaction, we should now see it as the beginning of a relationship. Digital and social media tools must be recognized as a standard part of quality care.
Julian Suchman is a digital strategist at inVentiv Health Communications.