The online behaviour and demands of HCPs in Europe

Paul Tunnah interviews Chris Cooper

EPG Health Media

Going online for health related resources is nothing new and a rising trend in this area is very apparent. Physicians are no exception to this trend. But when it comes to health, what are physicians going online specifically for and what online resources to they feel are sufficient for their needs? EPG Health Media conducted a survey to find out just this.

We spoke with Chris Cooper of EPG Health Media to learn more about the survey outcomes and the surprising results that emerged around HCPs and their online activity.

Read his interview below for the latest trends in online use by physicians.

Interview summary

PT: Hi Chris and thanks for joining me. First of all, what were the biggest surprises to come out of your recent survey on physician use of online channels?

CC: We’ve known for some time from activity on our physician portal www.epgonline.org that doctors are increasingly engaged in the digital space, and (not surprisingly), this latest study validates that thinking, with 100% of respondents using the internet daily for work-related research. However, the biggest surprise for us was the extent to which doctors spend time ‘searching’ for content online versus actually engaging with it.

Quite a clear pattern emerged, showing that doctors know the specifics of the type and quality of content they ideally want to find but seemingly have difficulty negotiating the huge quantity of results available via the major search engines and, in particular, quickly assessing which results are most relevant to them. As a result, 50% of respondents frequently settle for the medical information they find most easily or quickly on the internet, rather than spending more time searching for the information they would ideally have. It is apparent from our research that doctors are seeking straightforward ways of quickly accessing what they need, this has been one of the key influencers on the revised design format of epgonline.org.

We were expecting the research to lead us to some kind of epiphany moment in terms of what doctors want, but in fact what we discovered was that it isn’t so much a case of giving them something new or currently unavailable, but making it easier for them to find and engage with the huge amount of material, tools and services already available.

“…the biggest surprise for us was the extent to which doctors spend time ‘searching’ for content online versus actually engaging with it.”

PT: Broadly speaking, what activities do physicians now appear to be using the internet as a support tool for?

CC: Our research indicates that the internet is by far physicians’ preferred source of information or support for all work-related activities listed in the study, including queries related to individual patients, general academic research and CME. 63% of respondents stated that they prefer the internet to printed materials, meetings / congress and information supplied by medical reps.

In terms of what activities particularly occupy doctor’s online time, most respondents (62%) spend at least a quarter of their online time researching queries related to individual patients, followed by general (non-accredited research) to improve their knowledge, then CME and lastly social networking. Whilst social networking occupied the smallest proportion of respondent’s online time, 52% spend at least 10% of their time social networking and only 7% do not spend any time social networking online.

PT: What does the survey tell you about how physicians are finding the right information online and what routes are the most popular?

CC: When referring to ‘routes’ to online information, we can consider two meanings for ‘routes’, firstly, which devices are being used to access online information, and secondly, which online sources are being used to access information.

If we first consider devices, our study indicates that 100% of respondents access the internet from a PC or laptop and 89% of them do this at least 50% of the time. 80% of respondents access the internet via a mobile phone and 52% access the internet via an iPad or similar, however, they currently do this less frequently than via a PC / laptop. The indications from the study are that this is likely to change dramatically over the next two years, with respondents expecting a significant increase in iPad use in particular.

“…it isn’t so much a case of giving them something new or currently unavailable, but making it easier for them to find…”

In terms of sources to online information, our research tells us that physicians are not necessarily finding the ‘right’ information online as often as they should. The routes that are most popular are often those that are convenient rather than ‘right’ necessarily. For example, 81% of respondents access medical information on Wikipedia at least ‘occasionally’, however only 31% of respondents consider Wikipedia to be a valuable source of information. This may imply that doctors mainly use Wikipedia for convenience sake.

In terms of how physicians would ‘ideally’ find the right information, respondents prefer to use professional specialty websites to initiate their online search for medical information, with 79% ‘always’ or ‘often’ doing so, followed by general professional websites (55%), search engines (53%) and pharmaceutical websites (23%). This is another pointer for us as an online independent publisher and one of the key reasons for the division of our own content into 50 ‘specialty’ disease topic home pages.

PT: What specific types of online information do doctors find most useful?

CC: When talking about types of information, we might consider a) the format type (i.e. text, image, audio etc) and b) the purpose or function. It seems from our research that the purpose or function of the content is more important to doctors than its format or how it is physically presented.

At least 68% of respondents find all formats of online medical information ‘useful’, including text, slide kits / presentations, 3D animation, video, social networks and audio / podcast. The type of information that respondents find most useful is text with illustrations – 96% find this useful – while respondents find text without illustrations the least useful of the information types listed.

With regard to the purpose or function of content, at least 80% of respondents consider online journal publications, drug information, educational content and CME to be ‘important’ or ‘very important’ for their work and 71% consider forums to engage with other HCPs (far less so patients or pharma!) to be ‘important’.

The least important information types for doctors are forums to engage with patients, forums to engage with pharma, podcasts, mobile apps, e-Detailing, pharma websites, physician email facilities and market research, with at least 40% of respondents viewing them as ‘unimportant’ or ‘very unimportant’ to their work.

“…the purpose or function of the content is more important to doctors than its format or how it is physically presented.”

PT: How do you see attitudes shifting with regards to using and participating in professional online doctor communities?

CC: It is well publicised that attitudes to online communities for doctors have shifted over the past couple of years and our research certainly supports this shift. 93% of respondents have at least once accessed social media for professional purposes and 59% claim that at least 10% of their internet time is spent using online networks, forums and networking sites for professional purposes, primarily to engage with other HCPs (rather than patients or pharma). 69% are a member of at least one online community, forum or network and 67% consider online communities, forums and networks to be a useful source of factual information.

What hasn’t changed (for now) is that doctors continue to want to talk with other doctors via social platforms but have far less interest in engaging with patients or with pharma in this way, so we will have to see if and how that changes!

PT: And finally, do you get any hints of what’s not readily available online that they would like to see?

CC: It would seem that doctors are not entirely satisfied with the level of online access that they have to most types of information. Less than 60% of respondents consider that they have ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ access to any of the listed sources of online information and at least 50% of respondents indicated that they require better access to diagnosis tools, journal publications, educational content, drug information, CME, conference reports, medical news, mobile apps and patient education materials. This seems to be the case whether they consider them important to their work or not!

I personally doubt it’s the case that the content doctors want better access to is actually in short supply on the internet, I believe that there is a wealth of quality information available to doctors but it is often under-used. It is often the case that the problems with access have more to do with doctors having difficulty finding the information in the time frame that they have available, and also that they are often not sure which of the many sources to trust.

“It is often the case that the problems with access have more to do with doctors having difficulty finding the information in the time frame that they have available…”

For example, respondents to our study indicate that they value video and 3D animation (they find these more useful than professional networks / forums and audio / podcasts) but when it comes to accessing these types of interactive content online, ‘lack of time’ is cited by more than 56% of respondents as being the main obstacle, with more than 30% reporting ‘limited availability’ as the main barrier. 57% of respondents also state that ‘knowing which sources to trust’ is a barrier to sourcing medical information online and 33% believe that ‘too many sources of information’ creates barriers.

My view is, that to effectively support our HCPs, industry needs to focus less on producing more online content without proper consideration of the barriers to accessing the vast quantities of good quality information that already exists. We need to give greater thought to improving the routes (the online journey if you like) for doctors seeking trustworthy information in an already vast online space. It is solving this content acquisition barrier for doctors that has become the focus for the new version of www.epgonline.org

PT: Chris thanks very much for your time.

Download the FREE EPG report ‘The online behavior and preferences of European HCPs’ at www.epghealthmedia.com/industry-reports

About the interviewee:

As Managing Director of EPG Health Media, Chris Cooper has over a decade of experience working within digital healthcare and enabling pharmaceutical companies to reach and engage target audiences online, while measuring the results through analytics and market research. Owner of epgonline.org, Europe’s most subscribed physician website, Chris has specialist insight into physician online behaviour, digital strategy, campaign management, online architecture and audience acquisition in health.

How do you think we can reduce the barriers HCPs face in sourcing information online?