In search of more and more information on an ailment, a large number of Internet savvy individuals now feel comfortable to consult ‘Doctor Google’ – much before approaching a qualified medical professional for the same. If and when they visit one, many would possibly have arrived at a ‘symptoms-diagnosis correlation’ – based on their own interpretations of the sessions with ‘Doctor Google’– right or wrong.
‘Doctor Google’ – a ‘weird’ terminology, was virtually unheard of, until recently. This name owes its origin to universally popular ‘Google Search Engine.’ The number of frequent ‘consultations’ with ‘Doctor Google’ is breaking new records almost every day – primarily driven by deep penetration of smartphones – a versatile device that helps to charting unhindered, anywhere in the cyberspace.
In this article, I shall not go into whether this trend is good or bad. Nonetheless, the hard fact is, in the modern digital age, this trend is fast gaining popularity, across the world, including India. I shall discuss below, why and how the impact of ‘Doctor Google’ syndrome sends a strong signal to pharma companies to rewrite their business strategies for sustainable future growth.
‘Doctor Google’ syndrome:
To be on the same page with all my readers, ‘Doctor Google’ terminology is used for the process of getting various disease, treatment or medicine related information from cyberspace and especially through Google Search.This practice is currently being followed by many individuals who arenot qualified medical professionals, but through ‘Google Search’ often try to self-diagnose a disease or medical condition, or other health related issues. Some may even cross verify a professional doctor’s advice with ‘Doctor Google’.
Today, it is not uncommon to visit ‘Doctor Google’ first, instead of immediately visiting a General Practitioner (GP) for seeking professional advice. The areas of such search may range from trivial to even serious health conditions. The bottom-line therefore is, prompt ‘information seeking’ of all kinds, including health, and forming an opinion based on available information, is fast becoming a behavioral pattern within Internet canny and smartphone equipped population, across the world.
Medical Journals also reported this trend:
This trend has been captured in medical journals, as well. For example, a paper on Dr. Google in the Emergency Department (ED), published by the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) on August 20, 2018 concluded as follows:
“Online health care information was frequently sought before presenting to an ED, especially by younger or e-health literate patients. Searching had a positive impact on the doctor-patient interaction and was unlikely to reduce adherence to treatment.”
Yet another study titled, ‘What Did You Google? Describing Online Health Information Search Patterns of ED patients and Their Relationship with Final Diagnoses’, published onJuly 14, 2017 in the ‘Western Journal of Emergency Medicine’, came with a thought-provoking conclusion. Reiterating that Internet has become an important source of health information for patients, this study observed, many of these online health searches may be more general or related to an already-diagnosed condition or planned treatment, as follows:
- 35 percent of Americans reported looking online, specifically to determine what medical condition they may have;
- 46 percent of those reported that the information they found online led them to think they needed medical attention;
- The majority of patients used symptoms as the basis of their pre-ED presentation Internet search. When patients did search for specific diagnoses, only a minority searched for the diagnosis they eventually received.
Availability of credible online ‘symptom-checkers’:
To help patients getting credible information on many symptoms, there are several highly regarded online sources for the same, such as, a Symptom Checker provided by the Mayo Clinic of global repute.
The purpose of this tool is to help narrow search along a person’s information journey. This is not purported to be a self-diagnostic tool. A ‘symptom-checker’allows searchers to choose a variety of factors related to symptoms, helping to limit the potential medical conditions accordingly. This tool does not incorporate all personal, health and demographic factors related to the concerned person, which could allow a definitive cause or causes to be pinpointed. It also flags, the most reliable way to determine the cause of any symptom, and what to do, is to visit a competent health care provider.
Further, the research letter titled, ‘Comparison of Physician and Computer Diagnostic Accuracy’, published in the December 2016 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine, records additional important findings, as follows:
- Physician diagnostic error is common and information technology may be part of the solution.
- Given advancements in computer science, computers may be able to independently make accurate clinical diagnoses.
- Researchers compared the diagnostic accuracy of physicians with computer algorithms called symptom-checkers and evaluated the diagnostic accuracy of 23 symptom-checkers using 45 clinical vignettes. These included the patient’s medical history and had no physical examination or test findings.
- Across physicians, they were more likely to list the correct diagnosis first for high-acuity vignettes and for uncommon vignettes. In contrast, symptom checkers were more likely to list the correct diagnosis first for low-acuity vignettes and common vignettes.
Nonetheless, the above examples further reinforce the fact that patients now have access to robust online health-related data, on various aspects of a disease treatment process.
Technology is rapidly transforming healthcare:
That technology is rapidly transforming healthcare is vindicated by the estimate that the global market for digital health is expected to reach £43 billion by the end of 2018. This was noted in an article, titled ‘3 ways the healthcare industry is looking more like Google, Apple and Amazon’, published in Pharma IQ on November 16, 2018.
Pharma companies are realizing that an increasing number of patients now have better access to online information regarding their overall health and medical conditions, including various prevention and treatment options with costs for each. As people take a more active role in managing their health, pharma players, especially in their engagement with patients, require moving from mostly passive to active communication platforms. Consequently, personalizing health care products and services is expected to become the new norm, making the traditional pharma business models virtually redundant, the article highlights.
While going through this metamorphosis, pharma sector would willy-nilly emerge as an integrated technology-based industry. More tech-based changes will call for in various critical interfaces related to an organization’s ‘patient-orientation’, which is today more a lip-service than the ground reality. Entry of pure tech-based companies such as Google, Amazon and Apple into the healthcare space would hasten this process.Although such changes are taking place even in India, pharma companies in the country are yet to take it seriously.
Pioneering ‘omnichannel’ engagement is pivotal:
Again, to be on the same page with all, the term Omnichannel in the pharma parlance may be used for a cross-channel content strategy for improving patient engagement and overall patient-experience. This should include all touchpoints in the diagnosis and treatment process of a disease. It is believed, the ‘companies that use ‘omnichannel’, contend that a customer values the ability to engage with a company through multiple avenues at the same time.’ Thus, pioneering ‘omnichannel’ engagement is critical for a pharma player in today’s scenario.
A valid question may come up – is ‘Omnichannel (all-channel)’ patient engagement is just another name of ‘Multichannel (many-channel)’ engagement? No – not really. Interestingly, both will be able to deliver targeted contents to patients through a number of interactive digital platforms, namely smartphone-based Apps, specially formatted websites, social media community and the likes. But the difference is, as a related paper lucidly puts it - ‘Omnichannel approach connects these channels, bridging technology-communication gaps that may exist in multichannel solutions.’
That said, just as the above-mentioned pure technology companies, pharma players also need to learn the art of gathering a large volume of credible data, analyze those through modern data analytics for taking strategic decisions. This is emerging as an essential success requirement, even in the health care arena.
Precise data-based answers to strategic questions, as planned, are to be used effectively for omnichannel personalized patient engagement. This is fundamental to offer a delightful personal experience to patients, encompassing diagnosis, treatment, recovery, including follow-up stages of an ailment, especially involving the chronic ones. Only well-qualified and adequately trained professionals with in-depth pharma domain knowledge can make it happen – consistently, across multiple channels, such as social media, Apps and devices – seamlessly.
Real time customer data management is critical:
Virtually real time customer data management of huge volume that aims to provide ‘Unique Patient Experience (UPQ)’,is the lifeblood of success in any ‘omnichannel’ engagement. This is criticalnot just for right content strategy formulation, but also to ensure effective interaction and utilization between all channels, as intended, besides assessing the quality of UPQ. Once the process is in place, the marketers get to know promptly and on an ongoing basis, about the quality patient experience – as they travel through various touchpoints, to intervene promptly whenever it calls for. I explained this point in my article titled ‘Holistic Disease Treatment Solution: Critical for Pharma Success’, featured in this blog on October 29, 2018.
Credible data are all important – not just any data:
Real time voluminous data generation, coupled with astute analysis and crafty usage of the same, has immense potential to unlock doors of many opportunities. The effective leverage of which ensures excellence in business. But most important in this endeavor, it is of utmost importance to ensure that such data are of high quality – always. Similarly, use of any high-quality data, if not relevant to time, in any way or outdated, can be equally counterproductive.
An article titled, ‘Hitting Your Targets: A Check-up on Data’, published at PharmExec.com on August 02, 2018, aptly epitomizes it. It says, no matter what sophisticated technologies a life sciences organization uses, and how smart its sales and marketing strategy is, if there are flaws and gaps in foundational provider data, the company will end up with wasted resources and lost market share. Implementing ongoing data governance and stewardship programs will help improve efficiencies, allocate resources, and target customers with increased precision.
Going back to where I started from, it’s a fact that many Internet-friendly people now visit ‘Doctor Google’, much before they visit a medical doctor. Most probably, they will also arrive at a list of possible diagnoses, according to their own assessment.
While going through this process, they acquire an experience, which may or may not be new or unique in nature – depending on various circumstances. But the key point is, such patients – the number of which is fast increasing, are no longer as naïve as before on information related to a host of ailments. Consequently, the ‘pharma-patient interaction’ that has traditionally been passive, and through the doctors, will require to be more active and even proactive. This has to happen covering all the touchpoints in an involved disease treatment process where pharma is directly or indirectly involved.
To be successful in this new paradigm, pharma companies need to ensure that such ‘active communication’ with patients is necessarily based on a large pool of constantly updated credible data, exchanged through ‘omnichannel’ interactive platforms. The key success factor that will matter most is providing ‘unique patient experience’ through this process and its high quality. From this perspective, I reckon, rewriting pharma business strategy is of prime importance in the fast unfolding ‘Doctor Google’ era.
By: Tapan J. Ray
Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.