Communicating diabetes to the online masses – how can pharma take advantage?

Kirsty Pegram explores the opportunity presented to pharma by the global explosion of online diabetes communication.

Diabetes has been around a long time. First documented in an Egyptian papyrus around 1550BC, the condition was described as “too great emptying of the urine”1. In around 30–90 AD the Greek Physician Artaeus noted symptoms such as constant thirst, excessive urination and loss of weight, and coined the name diabetes – “to pass through”2. Some years later (131-201AD), Artaeus’s Roman counterpart Galen recorded the rarity of the condition and hypothesized a link to renal dysfunction1.

Fast-forward 2000 years and diabetes is anything but rare. In the UK alone, 3.8 million people suffer from the condition, with 150,000 new diagnoses every year3. Diabetes UK estimates that one in seven adults are at risk of diabetes and a suspected 850,000 people have the disease without even knowing it.

Not surprisingly, the cost of treating diabetes is huge and rapidly expanding. NHS expenditure is expected to increase from £9.8 billion to £16.9 billion over the next 25 years – at this point the NHS will be spending 17% of its entire budget on diabetes, not to mention associated complications and comorbidities4.


“Diabetes has been around a long time. First documented in an Egyptian papyrus around 1550BC”



 Hence there is a pressing social need to reduce the burden of diabetes, on both healthcare systems and the lives of individual patients:

√ Supporting those diagnosed with diabetes to effectively manage and live with their condition

√ Educating those who are undiagnosed or currently at risk to seek medical help and advice

√ Raising awareness among those who may be at risk in the future to take measures to prevent diabetes onset further down the line

Fast-forward 2000 years and we’re also using the internet for healthcare advice like never before. A recent survey found that 35% of adults in the US have used the internet to diagnose a medical problem for either themselves or an acquaintance5. Online search engines such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo were employed by 82% of these people, while 13% visited medical sites such as WebMD5.

Online channels play a significant role in reaching out to the UK population to support, educate and raise awareness on the subject of diabetes. Type 2 Diabetes holds a prominent position on the NHS choices website, while Diabetes UK provide a wealth of online support including disease education, lifestyle advice, social media based support networks and a diabetes risk calculator. Diabetes UK and Tesco recently collaborated to raise awareness of the risks associated with Type 2 Diabetes. The campaign makes use of digital platforms such as YouTube videos, live web-chats via Facebook, and support networks, forums and blogs to highlight the prevalence and seriousness of the condition, and encourage a call to action.

By contrast, this global diabetes explosion represents a massive opportunity for the pharmaceutical industry. The global diabetes market is already valued at US$35 billion, and is expected to grow to US$58 million by 20186. How can pharmaceutical companies take advantage of this situation to increase the number of diabetes diagnoses and encourage loyalty (from both HCPs and patients) to their particular brands?



“…this global diabetes explosion represents a massive opportunity for the pharmaceutical industry.”



Websites are a given. All the leading players in the diabetes market (Novo Nordisk, Sanofi, Lilly, Bayer…) have developed locally focused sites aimed at diagnosed diabetes patients who use (and HCPs who prescribe) their products.

Patient friendly domain names ( for Novo; for Sanofi) soften the link with the pharmaceutical industry and go some way to convince patients that they are cared for and the therapy area is moving forward.

Bayer’s diabetes management tools add a compliance element, encouraging users to track their daily glucose level and diet in an online diary, while also giving practical advice on how to manage treatment, e.g. whilst on holiday. In a world which is becoming increasingly obsessed with personalized mobile technology, Sanofi’s portfolio of successful apps are gaining in popularity. Sanofi in fact, is the only company to achieve 1+million downloads across its Apps

Novo Nordisk has gone a stage further, using the internet to engage potential future patients on the risks of diabetes. With their own YouTube channel, Novo regularly post video content on its efforts to raise diabetes awareness on a global scale, reaching out to different target populations and highlighting its own collaborations with the charity sector and initiatives such as World Diabetes Day.

Diabetes will only grow in prevalence and profitability. As will our inclination to find healthcare advice and self-diagnose online5. Pharma companies are well placed to take advantage of this situation, partnering with both commercial and non-profit organisations and keeping abreast of online trends and technology advances to raise their own digital profile in the world of diabetes and become a trusted partner among physicians and patients alike.


1) Leonid Poretsky, (2009). Principles of diabetes mellitus (2nd ed.). New York: Springer

2) Dallas, John (2011). “Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. Diabetes, Doctors and Dogs: An exhibition on Diabetes and Endocrinology by the College Library for the 43rd St. Andrew’s Day Festival Symposium

3) Diabetes UK

4) Hex et al. (2012). Estimating the current and future costs of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes in the UK, including direct health costs and indirect societal and productivity costs. Diabetic Medicine





About the author:

Kirsty Pegram is a Senior Research Executive at Branding Science, a market research led consultancy. With 3 years’ experience in market research for the healthcare industry, Kirsty also holds a PhD in Cell Biology.

How can pharmaceutical companies take advantage of this situation to increase the number of diabetes diagnoses?