Doctors reach online tipping point: is pharma ready to respond?

Carwyn Jones

Online engagement, in all its forms, can no longer be regarded as the preserve of the ‘early adopters’ or those with an addiction to Facebook, Bebo and Twitter. Recent research from into how the medical profession accesses information has shown that failure to embrace the channel means risking getting left behind.

As the largest and most active network of medical professionals in the UK, with over 90 percent of doctors from a wide range of specialisms signed up as members, is well-placed to comment on the healthcare sector and its attitudes to online. Behaviours are well understood too, with over 50,000 doctors a week taking part in discussions, sharing advice and, as seen in 2009, accessing vital news on rapidly changing developments in pandemic prevention.

A recent survey of almost 4,000 members found that nearly half accessed the internet whilst at work, with 93 per cent getting online at home. A quarter used the internet for professional networking, with 88 per cent using internet resources to search for professional information. It also showed that doctors are increasingly turning to the internet, and in particular, trusted independent websites, both as a regular source of professional information and as a communication lifeline during times of medical emergency.

Some might query online’s role in healthcare, where strict marketing rules and regulations could be seen to be at odds with the anarchy of the digital world. However, the growth in the number of campaigns now targeted at medical professionals indicate that savvy pharmaceutical marketers are making the most of their budgets by getting on board.

But simple information sharing is one thing – for marketing professionals hitting the right audience at the right time with the right information is quite another – as is getting measurable results. At a time when the healthcare industry is scrutinising the cost and effectiveness of the sales force model more than ever before, the more easily calculable return on investment of the digital channel means it is increasingly becoming an integral component in the sales and marketing mix.

An example is the Asasantin Retard online campaign for Boehringer Ingelheim, for which 27,000 doctors were engaged in a year-long online campaign – that’s equivalent to having 45 sales representatives on the road for the same period of time. The programme resulted in a £2.3 million increase in total cash sales versus forecast and incremental growth in sales of 19 percent, results which led Dr Ian Desborough, Boehringer Ingelheim’s hospital marketing business manager to cite the campaign as definitive “proof of concept for digital marketing”.

“Some might query online’s role in healthcare, where strict marketing rules and regulations could be seen to be at odds with the anarchy of the digital world.”

But when and how often do doctors access online resources, and how do they use the information? And, more importantly, how can pharmaceutical marketers use such information to ensure they are exploiting digital media channels to best effect?

It’s clear that far from being technophobes, medical professionals are frequent users – they might be busy, but the internet is certainly a powerful tool to reach them when a field sales person might be struggling to get a foot in the door. Another survey of over 3,000 members found that over 35 per cent visit the site itself at least once a day both at home and at work – and every time they access the network it’s a chance for pharmaceutical companies to communicate with them.

The medical profession is not immune to the dominance of Google, with 67 per cent of those surveyed saying they used the search engine as a first choice for finding medical information online, 96 per cent of the time through a laptop or desktop rather than a mobile device. Wikipedia also makes its presence felt, with 48 per cent of respondents admitting to visiting the site more than once a week – compared to only 16 per cent visiting the BMJ online!

Member surveys also provide useful insights into how medical professionals like to access new information, with 87 per cent accessing e-learning modules via compared to 58 per cent via BMJ Learning and 36 per cent through hospital-based NHS resources.

For doctors themselves, online forums offer unique collaboration with colleagues, meaning they become a trustworthy, valued resource. 97 per cent of medical professionals rate as one of their most trusted sources of information – providing a strong engagement opportunity for pharmaceutical companies wanting to ally themselves with a channel already valued by health professionals.

However, to be successful in the online world, pharmaceutical marketers need to work with channels that understand the fine balance – and sometimes the challenges – of communicating with a specific audience through this medium. The strength of any forum is in putting the health professional at ease, providing what they need and being sensitive to their dislikes. Ignore this and a forum becomes a forum with no members!

Whilst it’s true that online campaigns are still relatively new, more organisations are embracing them – and not just in the commercial world. For example, given the public sector’s toughened targets for delivering return on investment, their greatly increased use of new media channels is particularly telling. It’s all down to the ability to measure response and prove changes to clinical practice.

However, even online devotees may still need to convince those holding the purse strings that digital marketing or educational campaigns can deliver to the bottom line, particularly if budget needs to be reassigned from a field sales force.

A great recent case study was our work on a 12 month campaign to drive specialist awareness of the NHS Institute High Volume Care programme. The programme was designed to change attitudes and behaviours in practice to improve efficiency in high volume care pathways.

“The strength of any forum is in putting the health professional at ease, providing what they need and being sensitive to their dislikes.”

We reached 40,000 primary and secondary care doctors and thanks to our tracking capabilities know that we prompted 20,000 of them to assess their clinical practice. Of those, some 8,000 then went on to change their working methods as a direct result.

I mention this not to blow our own trumpet or that of the NHS Institute – but to demonstrate unequivocally that online campaigns do have the power to change minds and that secondly, with the right tools and advice, that they are capable of being accurately targeted and measured.

Despite the facts and figures, there will be some in the industry that view digital marketing as the ‘wild west’, operating in a world that’s unregulated and uncontrolled. We all know the tight restrictions the industry operates within, so how does online fit in?

The simple answer is that you would approach a promotional campaign, brand microsite, conference highlight or education module online just as you would if it were in print. Well-regarded online providers will not skirt regulation, but embrace it and feel comfortable applying it to a different environment. To do otherwise would risk losing the respect of users, and see the value disappear.

Clearly marking promotional material as such in an open and transparent way gains the trust of the community, and, perhaps surprisingly, appears to be no barrier. Our research found that 58 per cent of nearly 4,000 members surveyed said they would be prepared to view more sponsored information in order to fund further improvements to the service, with 80 per cent saying they would rather see such commercially-sponsored information on the website than pay a subscription for an alternative, commercial-free resource.

Where online campaigns do differ of course from traditional advertising or promotional literature is in the ability to adapt campaigns as they progress – immediate feedback can be sought, and messages tweaked if necessary, and at far less cost than a reprint or an additional visit from a sales representative.

As more global healthcare companies recognise the value of online communication there will no doubt be a shift towards the channel being seen increasingly as mainstream and an integral part of a successful marketing programme – with marketers themselves increasingly seeing digital as the smart way to spend shrinking budgets.

Don’t just take my word for it – quoting from the PricewaterhouseCoopers Pharma 2020, Marketing the Future report: “Professional networking sites… can help a company to differentiate its products and services more effectively and identify new areas of demand.”

Professionally we find ourselves in a world where it is the norm to do business online and it’s no different for the thousands of doctors and other health professionals out there. The only choice, as a marketer, is not whether or not to embrace digital, but how to make the most of it.

Pharmaceutical companies have been somewhat behind the curve but, given increased scrutiny on the effective use of sales and marketing budgets and the availability of proven channels, I believe that we sit astride the cusp of a revolution in the way we communicate and sell.

About the author:

Carwyn Jones is Head of Pharmaceutical at For queries regarding this article he can be contacted on or call +44 (0) 7770 408674.

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