Is the patient the new KOL?

Danny Stepto

Red Door Communications

The king is dead, long live the king. As patients are encouraged to be more proactive about their healthcare, and are becoming central to their treatment decision-making process where once the KOL was king, are patients becoming the new KOLs?

As a stakeholder, are patients becoming a more important group of influencers? With an ever-increasing pool of information available at their disposal through digital channels – despite pharma’s apprehension to engage with patients in this space – should we be reconsidering the role these stakeholders play and, more importantly, the channels by which we are reaching them?

Patient empowerment

The proliferation of digital media and internet information sources means that any patient with internet access can equip themselves with a wealth of knowledge about their disease and treatment options even before their first consultation.

We know there is a significant trend towards patients proactively going online to seek out health-related information, be it for themselves, a friend or relative.

With the emergence of innovative mobile health apps aimed squarely at patients – there are even more ways patients can strengthen their knowledge through digital channels. This has significant implications on them understanding their diagnosis (or in some cases the trigger for self-diagnosis) and their treatment options and what standards of care they should expect.

“…there are even more ways that patients can strengthen their knowledge through digital channels.”

The often cited Manhattan Research on health-related internet usage clearly illustrates how patients engage with health information online, how this translates into a meaningful shift in behaviour and the implications for patient empowerment.

The research showed that 52% of adult Europeans use the internet to manage their own or a loved-one’s condition. But more importantly ‘Health 2.0’ users are twice as likely as the average e-health consumer to request a prescription. More than half discussed the information they found online with their physician.

Nearly two thirds of physicians obtain medical information from blogs, message boards and online social networks – so they are essentially drawing from the same sources as their patients and the information loop goes full circle as nearly half of European physicians recommend sites to patients.

Who is the more important influencer?

The shift facilitated by digital media has put the patient firmly in the driving seat. Digital platforms have re-defined the patient / physician relationship and re-shaped the traditional treatment decision pathway. It also has implications on both physician and patient expectations on their respective levels of knowledge and understanding.

“Digital platforms have re-defined the patient physician relationship and re-shaped the traditional treatment decision pathway.”

Whilst the traditional KOL would normally fall within the prescriber or customer realm, the patient or ‘consumer’ now has an increasingly important influencer role which cannot be ignored.

Pharma is moving more of its marketing spend into engaging with HCPs in the digital and social space, in spite of obvious regulatory challenges, particularly in Europe where restrictions inhibit direct-to-consumer promotion.

However marketers need to consider replicating similar digital activity for patients so they are presented with accurate (and appropriate) information that will enhance their knowledge and support their decision-making process.

What opportunities does this represent in the future?

Whilst it is highly unlikely that in Europe we will ever move to a more accessible approach to product communication to patients, like the US, pharma needs to look for creative ways to communicate with patients.

Due to rapid development of digital communications, we seem to be moving through a transition period of uncertainty and lack of clarity about what is and isn’t allowed in the digital space.

This in itself shouldn’t be enough to prohibit pharma marketeers from at least being at the table when it comes to engaging in this space, particularly with patients.

“…activity in this area should be embraced with open arms and adequate resource – not confined to the ‘nice to have’ list…”

As long as common sense is used and the basic principles of compliance for promotional activities are applied to all communications media, including digital, then activity in this area should be embraced with open arms and adequate resource – not confined to the ‘nice to have’ list within the marketing programme.

So are patients becoming KOLs? Recognizing the importance of their role in the treatment decision process, the increasing level of influence they have cannot be ignored, neither can pharma be passive and fail to engage with them via the channels they are becoming empowered by.

About the author:

Danny Stepto is an Account Director at Red Door Communications, a full-service specialist healthcare communications consultancy who have recently undertaken a series of round-table discussions called the ‘Darwin Debates’ with various groups within the UK pharmaceutical industry to discuss the current state and future prospects for digital communications within the industry.

For further information or to register your interest in future events email:,, Twitter: @dannystepto

The opinions expressed above are those of the author.

Do we fully recognise the increasing level of influence of the patient?