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The New Voice(s) in the Room

August 1, 2019
Posted by Patty Ryan

These days, patients are making critical healthcare decisions in an evolving media landscape — one that’s increasingly filled with the new, and often compelling, ‘voices’ represented by social media influencers, voice search, and wearable devices.

Whether it’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Yoga with Adriene, the smart speaker on your kitchen table, or the smartwatch on your wrist, a panoply of new voices has begun to emerge across the healthcare media landscape. These voices are democratizing how patients access information about their health; they’re shaping market parameters; introducing new challenges; and, not least of all, creating exciting opportunities for savvy healthcare marketers.

Not every influencer has the healthcare credentials to match their public sway, and it doesn’t take a deep dive to understand how the influence of uncredentialed ‘experts’ could prove detrimental to public perceptions around healthcare; just dip your toe into Twitter’s ongoing vaccination debate, or ask Alexa for healthcare advice. The potential pitfalls are many — and they’re proliferating faster than most marketers in our space realize.

That said, the broadening of this crucial public conversation has already demonstrated its potential to empower patients, families, and practitioners alike as they navigate some of the most challenging and life-affirming choices they’ll ever make. Voice search is giving older generations access to answers they never knew how to find. Wearable fitness trackers are giving practitioners unprecedented visibility into a growing deluge of relevant patient data. And a number of social media influencers have been able to surface crucial health issues for underserved populations more successfully than even the most well-funded public health initiatives.

The new voices on the block are presenting exciting new ways for patients to manage their health. As patients make choices about healthcare, it’s essential to remember that these new ‘voices’ in the room are guiding the conversation.

Influencers Set the Tone

It’s no secret that patients go online for health advice, but much of that advice actually comes from users. Half of internet-using chronically ill patients seek out user-generated health information, while 90% of young adults report that they trust medical information they find on social media. The key to this trust? The emotional connection. When patients feel that they’re getting word-of-mouth advice from a trusted friend, that feeling can override more traditional sources of health advice.

Of course, those “friends” may actually be major celebrities like Kim Kardashian, who recently ran into some FDA trouble for a questionable health endorsement, or Gwyneth Paltrow, whose $250 million Goop enterprise is no stranger to skepticism from the scientific community. They may also be micro-influencers with more niche points of focus. Entrepreneurs, doctors, journalists, and academics can be among the more credible of these influencers, but followers are just as likely to listen to current or former patients, everyday enthusiasts, or anyone who has turned a passion into social media success. Sometimes critical attention from experts can actually boost an influencer’s popularity, as with Melissa Hartwig’s Whole30 diet.

On just about every platform imaginable, health and wellness influencers are guiding the conversation — and users are choosing which voices they want to follow. For marketers, these are familiar channels where they, too, seek to connect patients with healthcare solutions, and there are lessons to be learned from the influencer strategies and patient demographics found on each.

On T.V., Dr. Oz and Dr. Sanjay Gupta offer guidance to millions. Many diet trends got started on the blogosphere, and of course, the internet is also home to alternative medicine proponents, like homeopaths, who appeal to some 30% of U.S. patients. YouTube remains popular for health and fitness videos — the “Yoga with Adriene” channel has 4 million subscribers.

For influencers, the ongoing, shareable nature of social media makes it an essential way to gain followers and share ideas. Facebook is most popular with 25-34 year olds, while 19 to 24-year-olds are more likely to follow influencers on Instagram. 37% of patients with chronic conditions report having read about someone else’s healthcare experience online.

That said, traditional healthcare marketers have thus far struggled to successfully leverage influencers’ — ahem — influence in the healthcare space. With transparency and genuineness cited as top concerns for fans and followers, FDA regulations requiring ad disclosure make it difficult for many brands to make a huge impact.

The Power of Voice Search

Then there’s the other “voice” entering the healthcare space: voice assistants that have skyrocketed into ubiquity in recent years. Although only 16 percent of Americans own a smart speaker like the Amazon Echo or Google Home, that is a remarkable 128% increase just between January 2017 and January 2018. Those numbers are sure to grow — in fact, Juniper predicts that 55% of U.S. households will own a smart speaker by 2022.

The good news: voice-enabled search promises to deliver unparalleled insight into what patients really want. Unlike with traditional text-based search, the intuitiveness of voice search captures a great deal of a patient’s underlying intent. For instance, in the course of a normal conversation, a patient might ask a person familiar with the area, “Where is the nearest walk-in clinic?” As voice-enabled search becomes increasingly second nature, patients will start using identical syntax and phrasing to ask Siri, Alexa, or Cortana for the same information.

Not so with traditional search, where written queries such as “midtown New York hospitals” are more or less the norm. With smart speakers, inquiries are sure to be significantly longer and incorporate more metadata question words like “where,” “how,” and “what.” Astute healthcare stakeholders will learn to use fully-formed, complete sentence voice search queries to tailor communications with the utmost precision, providing patients with the information they need in a format that feels more human.

Meanwhile, doctors are already leveraging the unique benefits of voice assistants. As of 2017, 23% of U.S. physicians used voice assistants for professional reasons, including dictating messages and internet searches. Some even used this convenient, hands-free voice technology to look up drug dosing or diagnostic information. The digital startup Suki is even developing an AI-based voice assistant specifically for doctors to retrieve patient records and take notes. For busy doctors, using voice technology can be a major time-saver, helping them focus on patients instead of paperwork. As these voice technologies improve, they are poised to open up new channels of communication for healthcare companies, doctors, and patients alike.

 Wearable Fitness Trackers Provide Constant Health Feedback

While patients grow used to immediate voice search, they are also becoming accustomed to immediate health feedback from wearable medical technologies. These ancillary ‘voices’ in consumer healthcare provide immediate, ever-present streams of information that patients are using to inform critical healthcare decision — well outside of the context of a doctor’s office.

According to IDTechEX, wearables are a growing market that could reach $150 billion over the next 8-10 years. Smartwatches like FitBit and Apple Watch remain popular as a way to track activity and basic health info. Such wearables can serve to encourage positive feedback loops that improve user health. The feedback from these devices can give individuals new insight into their own health, but many medical professionals are also interested in collecting and analyzing this data to bolster preventative care efforts.

Powerful sensors mean these smart devices are actually becoming life-savers, performing high-stakes medical functions and giving patients unprecedented control over their own well-being. The Embrace watch, for example, monitors for seizures and can alert caregivers. Smart glucose monitors are empowering diabetes patients to better manage their own food and medication. Cardiac monitors can warn against heart attacks, and increasingly intelligent sensors mean that wearables could become diagnostic tools for conditions like Alzheimer’s. There is even a pill that can trace whether the user has swallowed it, a technology that could improve medication adherence. Overall, these devices both augment doctor capabilities and provide users with a powerful source of health status updates.

The Democratized Healthcare Journey

In this new healthcare landscape, patients feel empowered by access to information, whether it comes from influencers, online voice search, or their own instant data. A more democratized healthcare journey can better inform a patient, and help them find their own voice. In addition, patients can more easily choose sources that better align with their own unique lifestyles. And some of these technologies may even help doctors better interface with their patients, providing a counterbalance to peer-driven advice.

At the same time, non-expert advice can be attractive to patients, and subpar or outright inaccurate information can undermine our efforts at comprehensive patient education. As patients increasingly reach their own conclusions about critical healthcare decisions, marketers within this rapidly shifting space will have to acknowledge the complexity of providing accurate information about their products. When patients spend their time following the latest online health trends, they may be missing out on HCP-approved options that could provide relief and transform their lives.

As the new voices enter into the arena, it’s important that the voices with the right information reach the right patients at the right time — and that’s a directive to which strategically targeted media can make a sizeable contribution.

Patty Ryan, VP, Paid Social Media has over 8 years of experience in social media and has experience creating and managing successful social media teams.

In the 5 months since Patty started at PHM, she has already made a tangible impact and continues to drive social media growth for our clients.

Connect with Patty on LinkedIn.

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