Searching for patient engagement

Search engines are the modern hearth around which information is exchanged; for patients, turning online for health advice has become even more prevalent as the pandemic exerts its influence, deterring in-person appointments with healthcare professionals in favour of online consultations with Dr Google.

People turn to search engines to ask more than one billion health-related questions every single day. Search engines are available at their fingertips and around the clock; they don’t judge, and they offer a wealth of information that can empower someone concerned about a symptom, cowering in the face of a diagnosis, or navigating an arduous treatment regime.

Until now, the exact questions patients ask and the information served back to them has been concealed in a blind spot of the digital communication landscape. However, this online exchange of information significantly influences the narrative around all categories of health with a corresponding impact on the broader healthcare ecosystem. Nowhere has this been more evident than in relation to COVID itself – as the virus mutated, driving the epidemic, so did the rumours, fuelling the ‘infodemic’. Much of the information shared on Social Media (and consequently amplified) was first found in Search as a result of simply asking a question. Misinformation has played havoc with public health measures such as mask wearing and had a devastating impact on vaccine hesitancy and resistance. This illustrates how influential the search dynamics in a category can be towards supporting, or distorting, an evidence-based narrative.

Curiously, to date, the pharma industry has not yet explored the information gathering process of patients from this perspective. Few have sought to harvest patient insights from Big Search Data or considered the need to understand the real-world patient information experience. Perhaps, armed with traditional research methodologies and Social Listening tools, they felt they had all the possible mechanisms needed to understand and engage patients, despite lamentations such as ‘we don’t know what the problems are that we actually need to solve for patients in their journey’ made by a Business Transformation Director at Novartis.

Patients ask Google questions they are embarrassed to ask their doctors and explore concerns they are hesitant to disclose in focus groups or surveys. Search Listening, the analysis of aggregated, anonymised search queries, acts as a digital truth serum to reveal real-world longform queries. This generates a dataset that offers the potent combination of scale plus detail. Delving beyond the curated, self-censored data returned in a Social Listening report, and offering context unavailable in a Google Trends keyword review, this emerging discipline reveals truly unique insights into the experience of patients as they seek information about their health. Mapping queries asked in their own words to the patient journey, and analysing the content served back to them empowers us to truly understand the information influencing them. This dynamic has been defined as the real-world patient information experience (PiX) and understanding this unlocks the final frontier of the digital landscape offering a potent new pathway for patient engagement.

‘Search Listening is key to understanding and shaping the narratives that influence the healthcare ecosystem.’ Says Julia Walsh, CEO of Brand Medicine International, who has pioneered the concept of #SearchListeningHealth. ‘If we don’t know what our patient stakeholders don’t know, then how can we hope to genuinely engage them?’

Furthermore, Search Data is a living dataset because it constantly evolves as new queries on a topic emerge. This allows us to track changes in dynamics in real time – empowering us to employ a heightened level of proactivity with regard to responding to patient concerns and deploying digital patient engagement tactics.

As more people across the healthcare industry embrace the potential of Search Listening to understand and engage patients, as well as discover and deprioritise misinformation, we have a collective opportunity to clean up the internet for patients. The public health benefits of this are considerable, because by turning up when and where patients need us to online, with evidence-based patient responsive content, we can help accelerate the patient journey from symptoms to diagnosis, and from diagnosis towards a suitable treatment.

Fixing the broken patient search experience also offers considerable commercial benefits to pharma too from a higher return on investment in information to online brand reputation management to potentially earlier treatment intervention, so it’s a win-win.

“Assuming that a pharma company wants to establish a presence on Google and be part of that conversation, then it should develop high-quality expert content that speaks directly to the questions that people are asking,” says Sam Gilbert, data-driven marketing expert, academic and author of the book Good Data: An Optimist’s Guide to Our Digital Future.. “Pharma have high domain authority and could rank quite quickly on page one of search.”

As Julia, aka The Search Listener, says, ‘The first step towards the next level of patient engagement starts with listening.’




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