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Patient influencers: How influential are they really? And should we care?

27.09.2017

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As you might already understand, influencer marketing is a form of advertising in which focus is placed on influential people rather than the target market as a whole. It identifies the individuals that have influence over potential buyers, and orients marketing activities around these influencers. This is becoming an increasingly common strategy for consumer brands to utilise, especially when launching new products or entering new spaces for the brand. The implementation is extremely simple; an agency or brand will identify a person who is influential on social media – i.e. has a large base of followers who regularly engage – and will invite this person (either actively or passively) to post videos, images or other content related to the brand. We’ve seen it happen with both celebrity spokesmodels, and even more frequently these days, with regular people who have large numbers of followers to their social media pages. The return on investment from this “earned media”, is huge and is known as the most trusted source of information for consumers. In 2015, a Nielsen study revealed that 83% of respondents trust recommendations from people that they know and 66% trust consumer opinions posted online, even if they do not know the person directly.

Perhaps not surprisingly, influencer marketing also exists in the healthcare space. Two of the earliest examples of these were a promotion campaign involving Bob Dole for Viagra and an awareness campaign that became known as the ‘The Katie Couric Effect’, which increased rates of colonoscopies by 20% in the months after Katie Couric underwent a colonoscopy herself. In more recent days, the expansion of peer-to-peer knowledge exchanges has allowed engaged patients to gain “followers” in their respective communities. These can take on several different strategies – some putting their personal disease journeys front and centre, posting hospital gown selfies and live tweeting imaging procedures, while others might work more behind the scenes, attending yearly conferences, advocating at political engagements and interacting with pharma companies to change policy. These influencers are frequent creators and sharers of content on new developments and advancements in their disease area and are readily and regularly communicating with their expanding communities. Patient influencers, or patient leaders as they are sometimes referred to, are engaging online with their followers, educating their online patient communities about new treatment options and providing support in navigating their illnesses.

“That’s great, but what does that mean for us in the industry?” you might be thinking. Pharma and biotech companies can’t utilise influencers in the same way that consumer brands do. You won’t ever flip through your Instagram feed and see Justin Bieber posting an #ad about a treatment for diabetes or multiple myeloma. It would be irresponsible for any company to promote

their product in this way as each patient is very different and medications cannot be prescribed in the same “one size fits all” way of consumer product. And can you just imagine the length of that fair balance statement that would follow the hashtags?! On the same side, patient influencers, by their very nature of being seemingly unbiased sources of information, may lose all credibility by posting sponsored content on behalf of a pharmaceutical or biotech company. So, in the health space, while social media provides people with a virtual community in which to voice concerns, seek advice, and overcome the stigma that often accompanies various diseases, the difficulty lies in corporate interests undermining the integrity and efficacy of these networks to serve their own ends.

It is hard to ignore, however, the gaps between physician and patient goals and understanding, which we in the market research industry see arise repeatedly. One example, worth considering – a patient approaches their oncologist asking about a clinical trial that they’ve seen in the news. The oncologist is quickly dismissive of the trial as the patient isn’t qualified and the oncologist worries about getting the patient’s hopes up that there will be a cure for their disease. However, the oncologist has missed the point here – the patient was raising an interest in participating in a clinical trial – perhaps that trial might not have been right for the patient, but perhaps there is another that might have worked. Let’s look at that scenario again from the patient influencer point of view – a patient in their community posts a question to the influencer asking about the trial – a discussion among the community then ensues where other patients can talk about their experiences on different trials and how they found the correct trial. The original patient can walk away empowered to find a trial that will work for them and with clear steps of how to do this, even if it wasn’t the initial trial they were interested in. As such, this peer-to-peer exchange is filling a large gap in the current health system and providing a much-needed platform for treatment.

Given this, there are a number of ways that pharma can still utilise patient influencers in the here and now, without having to directly engage. In his book “The Patient Will See You Now”, Eric Topol suggests a number of ways that companies can use these patient influencers to advance the healthcare system:

  • Consider the move from a “system of healthcare” to “a system focused on health” by gaining the realisation that consumers need to take an active role in their health to change behaviours to stay healthy, or an active role in self-management of their disease
  • Identify influencers who ignite change and make these influencers part of the care team. This is a huge opportunity to fill the gaps of where care delivery ends and day-to-day life begins for patients
  • Embrace a shift in the way we view “the experts”. While the doctor may be the expert in diagnosis, treatment and clinical care, they haven’t lived the experience and will never be able to understand the true impact of each side effect on the life of the patient. As such, we need to recognise an additional group of experts – the patients who are experts in their own personal context
  • Encourage a focus on peer-to-peer medicine. Shared problems, shared solutions, and enabling patients to find those solutions that might be cheaper, rare, or even underfunded

And looking even further ahead – the internet has created professional skateboarding dogs and fashion stars, so why not professional patients? In the end, patients can’t help but offer advice on what worked for them, even while they know it might not work for everyone. Perhaps pharma should start considering these patient influencers in the same way they do a physician and support a fleet of specialised sales reps to educate patient influencers on new products and devices. Patient influencers can then act in the way a doctor does – by carefully considering the data and sharing information with other patients if they believe the product to be worthwhile. Patients, themselves, are ultimately responsible for their own well-being, and so while they can take on board and carefully consider feedback from others, they ultimately have the final say over their health and treatment decisions.

By Lisa Logan

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