Making digital an integral part of medical communications: lessons from clinical practice

Dr Candice O’Sullivan


Doctors are challenged throughout their careers to stay current and to continually incorporate new molecules, therapies and clinical paradigms into everyday practice. This article explores what ideas we can borrow from clinical practice to make digital an integral part of our ‘current practice’ when developing medical communications.

The practice of medicine is not static, it is a fluid and evolving discipline. Prescribing new drugs, learning new procedures and applying new technologies are crucial to providing up-to-date, best-practice care. There will always be a newer, faster, better pill for patients to swallow.


“Communications channels are the ‘pills’ of the communications world.”


Communications channels are the ‘pills’ of the communications world. In their simplest form, they are all merely delivery devices. They come in many different forms. Some suit certain conditions better than others. Which one(s) you choose depends on what has been proven most effective, what your desired outcomes are and who is on the receiving end. And channels, like pills, will always advance and evolve – and even cycle, as preferences change.

Doctors are challenged throughout their careers to stay current and to continually incorporate new molecules, therapies and clinical paradigms into everyday practice. So what key ideas can we borrow from clinical practice to make digital (or for that matter, any new media) an integral part of our ‘current practice’?

1. Work from first principles

In times of uncertainty, a good practitioner always works from first principles. The ability to go back to basics when a situation becomes overwhelming can be life-saving, literally. Consider the first action a trauma doctor always takes in an emergency: he assesses the patient’s ‘ABCs’ (airway, breathing and circulation). He doesn’t do anything else until he has those parameters right.


“The medium (whether traditional or digital) is not the message. It never has been.”


Digital as a medium presents us with a vast array of choices. Whether it’s a comprehensive disease portal, a sophisticated online classroom, or a 140-character broadcast, digital introduces many more channels into the communications mix. It is easy to become paralysed or side-tracked by the possibilities.

So how do you see the forest for the trees? Don’t focus on them! The medium (whether traditional or digital) is not the message. It never has been. Fundamentally, channels are tactics – and tactics should always be defined by strategy. After all, a doctor does not decide on a treatment before he first understands the patient’s clinical needs and the context in which treatment is to be administered.

An astute communications practitioner will always begin by defining his message within the context of a specific audience – and won’t move on until he has these right.

In this spirit, the first step to making digital an integral part of your medical communications is to look past the bells and whistles and start with first principles – the ABCs, if you like – of effective communication. Like a clinician, you need to be systematic: understand the problem (the communications challenge), what it is you are trying to achieve (core communications objectives), and how you are going to approach the issue (a sound communications strategy) before devising your treatment plan (communications plan).

This process requires discipline, but will clarify the role of digital media in meeting your communications objectives.


“By putting your audience at the centre of your planning, you will ensure that your messaging ends up where your audience is.”


2. Be patient-centric (i.e. audience-centric)

Part of the challenge with integrating digital communication into ‘everyday practice’ may be that formal communication training has, until recently, focused almost entirely on the ‘shot-put approach’, i.e. throw out a well-conceived, well-targeted, well-delivered message and hope it lands in the right place. Fittingly, this approach originated in classical Greek times, meaning that for a very long time, effective communication has been defined by content, delivery and persuasion. Until digital came along, no one imagined it could be otherwise.

Digital media, however, demands that we embrace a ‘frisbee approach’: i.e. design (and expect) communications to come back, allow for interaction and feedback. Accordingly, more than ever, we need to understand:

• Our target audience (and segments thereof)

• How they like to receive information, and

• Where they go to search for information.

By putting your audience at the centre of your planning, you will ensure that your messaging ends up where your audience is and where your audience wants to be (but need and appreciate your help to get to). By taking an audience-centric approach, you’ll naturally incorporate the most relevant, useful and regularly accessed channels into your med comms programme, not just what’s new or flashy. Be audience-led, not technology-led.

3. Know what your treatment (i.e. digital) options are

It is a career-long habit for clinicians to stay current with what is considered best practice – and similarly, it can be a full-time job to keep up with the digital landscape. Unfortunately, there is no easy way out of this one. You simply need to make it a habit to get up to speed with new technologies quickly and have processes in place that will support you to do this. To realise the potential and make the most of the opportunities these new channels provide, you need to understand them. This will enable you to seamlessly incorporate them into your communications mix and to recognise where and when they can add value compared to other modes of delivery.

4. Only use something new if it will provide a better or best patient (i.e. end-user) experience

Why do doctors prescribe new medicines? First and foremost, it is to improve therapeutic outcomes, but it’s also to give patients a better experience throughout the treatment journey – take the case of newer chemotherapy agents to reduce side-effects, for example. The parallel for communicators is that we should use the technology available to enrich the content we are delivering and to provide a better learning experience.


“It can be a full-time job to keep up with the digital landscape.”


It’s a simple analogy, but remember when everybody stopped using overhead projectors and transparencies and started using PowerPoint? The content being delivered was the same. What differed was the mode of delivery and the improved experience the technology enabled.

Digital technology provides the opportunity to engage healthcare professionals in new and different ways. So when you are choosing a ‘delivery device’, prioritise the experience it will provide the end-user and how it will make your message more inviting, compelling and enjoyable to receive.

From my perspective as a communications strategist, the only thing different about how we deliver medical communications in the digital age is the channel(s) we use. As such, I spend a lot of time diverting my clients’ attention away from the glitz and glamour of the latest widget in an effort to ‘unblind’ them and remind them of what we know works – going back to first principles and articulating a communications strategy that will accurately and reliably inform which channels are most appropriate and most likely to be valued by a particular audience. Within this context, digital tactics become a direct extension of our strategic thinking, sewn into the fabric of a much bigger picture, rather than a loss leader.

About the author:

Candice O’Sullivan is Head of Strategy at Wellmark, a creative agency with specialist expertise in healthcare communications and pharmaceutical marketing.

Formerly a medical practitioner, Candice began her agency career as a technical writer developing medical communications for healthcare professionals and patients. She has since spent the better part of a decade developing and implementing marketing communications and brand strategy for some of Australia’s leading corporations and local affiliates of global pharmaceutical companies, including Bristol-Myers Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline, Gilead, Celgene, Ipsen and CSL.

Her current focus is on the delivery of high-level strategic insights that lead to the development of truly effective communications that support and advance her clients’ strategic objectives and brands. She often works with brands from the time of launch, developing brand and communications strategy and planning tactical programmes (and their creative execution) across the entire product lifecycle.

For more information, please visit or email You can follow her @candicepill and @wellmark_health.

Do you let the audience or the technology lead the way with your digital communications?