Patients look to digital resources, but apps need more work

Use of online resources for health-related searches is increasing, and many turn to online communities for mutual support, but the benefits of medical apps are yet to be proven, according to a survey of patients and caregivers.

A recent survey1 of more than 13,600 members of an online, healthcare support community has provided insight into the use of resources, primarily digital and online, by these patients and caregivers to help them better understand and discuss their conditions.

While the current usage of available materials through electronic mediums should provide tremendous optimism to the industry for the future, there is still work to be done before this becomes the standard.

eHealth tools: the patients’ choice

When asked how they researched their health condition(s), the vast majority of patients and caregivers who took part in the survey reported that they used various online platforms. Almost 80 per cent indicated using condition-specific websites/blogs in search of a better understanding, while an equally strong showing said they used the less specific route of online search engines.

The use of these online tools far outweighs traditional outlets, whether they be written or live, personal interactions with doctors, nurses or other patients.

The survey respondents who expanded on their information-seeking activities valued education and knowledge as a treasured commodity. Many felt that the better informed they were, the better they could partner with their healthcare professionals.

“‘You don’t know what you don’t know’. This was our #1 issue and unless we found it by our own research, we never heard about it.”

“As most people now look up any information they wish to know on the Internet I feel that the information should always be the most recent information on that particular condition. Doctors don’t usually like the thought that you are using the Internet but they do not have the time to explain everything so we need to be given reputable sites to use by the Specialists and GPs…”

“I feel a well-informed patient is a better patient. There have been a few times that doctors find things and do not tell me, which affects my decision-making process.”

When asked to select the one source they found most helpful, a resounding two-thirds of those surveyed highlighted an online resource (specific websites/blogs, search engines, patient support forums).

While there was strong support for online sources of information, the survey showed there was still much ground to cover, particularly within social media.

Social media: the next healthcare frontier

While the industry works with regulators to understand how it can interact with their consumers on social media and what obligations they have to some of the challenges posed by this novel platform, patients and caregivers are also in the early adoption phase of turning to social media for their medical conditions.

Nearly 90 per cent of all patients and caregivers indicated that they used at least one social media platform for personal reasons. Facebook was the most widely used platform among this group, followed distantly by YouTube, Pinterest, Google+ and a handful of other social media sites.

Interestingly, while it was observed that social media usage decreased as the respondent populations got older, there wasn’t a sharp decline, falling below the overall values for each of these outlets, until patients and caregivers reached at least 65 years old, providing support to the argument that social media is not only for young people anymore.

Although the usage of social media outlets is fairly widespread, patients and caregivers turn to these sources much less frequently for their health concerns. Overall, two-thirds of respondents acknowledged using any type of social media for medical use, a significant difference from the stated personal usage of these sites.

Facebook and specific healthcare-focused social networks were the most commonly accessed social media sites for medical information. While the information they gathered here was appreciated, these patients and caregivers primarily valued the connectivity they experienced with others like them on social media, proving to themselves that they were not alone in their struggles.

“Facebook has tons of support groups which provide info and kind word when you feel so alone in the battle.”

“I get more useful information from the discussion board at Inspire than I do from my doctor.”

“Social media has played an essential role in connecting patients with each other to compare conditions and treatment plans worldwide to ensure your own treatment plans are as optimal as possible.”

Given the strong showing of support for online healthcare resources, it would appear that the door is wide open for an almost entirely digital age of medical education; however, patient/caregiver receptivity to the use of smartphones in this space may limit this optimism.

Mobile apps

Although this population endorsed the availability of online tools to help them better manage their health conditions, mobile apps are not as strongly sought-after solutions. When asked, 72 per cent of all respondents said they never used smartphone tools to help manage their conditions.

In an effort to test the concept of integrating smartphones into their daily healthcare plan, those who did not currently use this technology were asked if they at least believed this could prove to be helpful. Astonishingly, nearly 60 per cent of this mobile-naïve population said they did not think it would be a beneficial addition for them. Unlike the situation with social media, the usage of smartphones for healthcare decreased sharply with age, even among middle-aged respondents.

“The overall amount of people who have fully integrated a smartphone into their healthcare routine remains limited”



The ~25 per cent of those who had used their smartphone to aid in the management of their health conditions most often did so to help prepare for doctors’ appointments, to search for information online and for dosing reminders. While some people used their smartphones to either take notes during appointments or to take photos of symptom areas, where applicable, the overall amount of people who have fully integrated a smartphone into their healthcare routine remains limited.

While there is still much ground to cover with integrating smartphones into the healthcare armoury, those who do leverage this technology can prove to be advocates for it, even providing insight into what types of tools would be helpful.

“I find that use of electronic media (smartphone, etc.) is much more useful than paper printed media. If I use my smart phone I always remember to cover all points with my doc.”

“Smartphone patient care is in our near future. Data is power and I believe that with an informed patient AND doctor, care evolves more efficiently and quickly.”

“It would be very helpful to have an app that doctors can be able to utilise to communicate with their patients.”

Looking ahead to the healthcare changes yet to come, it appears that digital and social media outlets will have a warm reception. To ensure that any tools offered through these mediums have a place in the landscape of tomorrow, the industry must first address certain privacy and trust issues. However, once cleared, these will certainly be the standard platform for patient and caregiver information seeking based on findings thus far.

1Inspire Patient and Caregiver Survey.

About the author:

Dave Taylor is director of Research at Inspire. During his career he has worked with 60+ brands and 30 companies across dozens of therapeutic categories to address the opportunities and obstacles that exist in these markets.

Before joining Inspire, Dave worked for a number of prominent research companies, executing both quantitative and qualitative studies. He is also experienced in marketing, brand promotion and business development.

He earned his BBA in Marketing from Temple University and his MBA in Marketing at Saint Joseph’s University.

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