The controversy surrounding patients’ looking for health information online is virtually an ongoing one, for various reasons. Interestingly, it has been continuing at an accelerating pace for a long time. For example: “Eight in ten internet users have looked for health information online, with increased interest in diet, fitness, drugs, health insurance, experimental treatments, and particular doctors and hospitals,” reported Pew Research Center way back on May 17, 2005.
Nearly a couple of decades later, yet another research study, Reuters Events (Pharma & Healthcare) on July 12, 2023, reiterated the same, especially focusing on the role of drug companies in this fast-evolving scenario. It said, “Patients are increasingly having to research their own health needs. Pharmaceutical companies can help fill in information gaps for patients to protect trust in the healthcare sector.”
One may easily brush aside this trend, ascribing it as merely a western phenomenon, but probably at one’s own peril. In this article, therefore, I will discuss this issue against a contemporary Indian backdrop – in search of ways and means to leverage this opportunity through the pharma industry. Let me begin with contemporary Indian examples, as available in the public domain, giving a sense of the ground situation in this space.
Are Indian patients also increasingly trying to get online disease information?
Here below are some examples of recent studies confirming more patients are now seeking disease-related information online, before meeting their doctors:
- A 2022 study by the Indian Medical Association found that 72% of Indian patients do some research on their condition online before meeting their doctor.
- A 2023 survey by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry found that 65% of Indian patients believe that it is important to be informed about their condition before meeting their doctor.
- A 2023 report by the National Health Portal of India found that the number of visitors to its website seeking information about diseases and conditions has increased by 20% in the past year.
These are just a few illustrations that reinforce the ascending trend of Indian patients’ seeking out disease related online information, just as in other parts of the world.
Any benefits to patients’ seeking such information online?
In my view, there are several benefits to patients seeking disease-related information before meeting their doctors, such as:
- Patients can come to their appointment better prepared. By doing their research ahead of time, patients can come to their appointment with a better understanding of their condition, the different treatment options available, and what to expect. This can help them to make more informed decisions about their care.
- Patients can ask better and more relevant questions. By having a good understanding of their condition, patients can ask their doctor more specific and informed questions. This can help them to get the most out of their appointment.
- Patients can feel more confident and empowered. By being informed about their condition and treatment options, patients can feel more confident and empowered to take control of their own healthcare.
Is this a healthy trend that deserves to be encouraged?
From a large number of studies, it appears that the increasing number of patients seeking online health and disease information has both pros and cons.
- Patients can become more informed about their health and conditions. This can lead to better communication with doctors and more informed decision-making about treatment.
- Patients can access information from a variety of sources, including medical websites, patient support groups, and social media. This can be especially helpful for patients with rare or complex conditions.
- Patients can find information that is tailored to their specific needs and interests. For example, they can find information about their condition in their native language or about treatment options that are available in their area.
- The quality of online health information can vary widely. Some websites are more reliable than others, and it can be difficult for patients to assess the credibility of the information they find online.
- Patients may misinterpret information they find online or apply it to their own situation incorrectly. This can lead to anxiety, confusion, and even harmful health decisions.
- Patients may delay seeking medical attention if they are self-treating based on online information. This can be dangerous, especially for patients with serious or life-threatening conditions.
Overall, the pros of patients seeking online health and disease information outweigh the cons. However, it is important for patients to be aware of the potential risks and to take steps to ensure that they are getting accurate and reliable information.
Points to consider for patients who are seeking online health and disease information:
- Use reputable sources, such as websites from government agencies, medical organizations, and universities. Here pharma companies can also play a very meaningful role. In this context, I also wrote an article on December 17, 2018 titled - Rewriting Pharma Strategy For ‘Doctor Google’ Era.
- Be critical of the information you find online and don’t take it all at face value. Check multiple sources and talk to your doctor to confirm what you’ve read.
- Don’t use online information to self-diagnose or self-treat. If you have any concerns about your health, see a doctor.
- Patients can also talk to their doctor about how to use online health information safely and effectively.
Role of pharma companies in this area:
As I mentioned above, pharmaceutical companies can play an important role in helping patients get credible online information on healthcare and disease information. The following are some of the many things they can do:
- Create and maintain high-quality websites and social media pages that provide accurate and understandable information about diseases and conditions, treatment options, and clinical trials. These websites and pages should be easy to navigate and should be updated regularly with new information.
- Partner with other organizations, such as patient advocacy groups and medical associations, to develop and distribute educational materials about diseases and conditions. These materials can be made available online and offline.
- Support research on how to best communicate health information to patients. This research can help pharmaceutical companies develop more effective ways to reach patients with credible information.
Some global and Indian examples:
1. Some recent global examples of pharmaceutical companies taking steps to help patients get credible online information on healthcare and disease information:
- Pfizer: In 2022, Pfizer launched a new website called “Pfizer Rx Path” that provides patients with information about their medications, including how to take them, potential side effects, and interactions with other medications. The website also includes a tool that allows patients to search for clinical trials for their condition.
- Novartis: In 2023, Novartis launched a new social media campaign called “#NovartisAnswers” that aims to provide patients with answers to their questions about diseases and conditions, treatment options, and more. The campaign features a series of videos and blog posts that are created in collaboration with medical experts.
- GlaxoSmithKline: In 2023, GlaxoSmithKline partnered with the patient advocacy group “Parkinson’s UK” to develop a new educational website about Parkinson’s disease. The website provides patients with information about the disease, its symptoms, and treatment options. It also includes a forum where patients can connect and share their experiences.
By taking these steps, pharmaceutical companies can play an important role in improving patient health outcomes.
2. Some recent Indian examples of domestic pharmaceutical companies taking steps to help patients get credible online information on healthcare and disease information:
- Sun Pharmaceutical Industries: In 2022, Sun Pharmaceutical Industries launched a new website called “Sun Pharma Health” that provides patients with information about a variety of diseases and conditions, including COVID-19, diabetes, and cancer. The website also includes a section on “Patient Resources” that provides patients with tips on how to manage their health and medications.
- Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories: In 2023, Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories launched a new social media campaign called “Dr. Reddy’s Health Talk” that aims to provide patients with answers to their questions about diseases and conditions, treatment options, and more. The campaign features a series of videos and blog posts that are created in collaboration with medical experts.
- Cipla: In 2023, Cipla partnered with the patient advocacy group “Diabetes India” to develop a new educational website about diabetes. The website provides patients with information about the disease, its symptoms, and treatment options. It also includes a section on “Living with Diabetes” that provides patients with tips on how to manage their diabetes and live a healthy life.
By taking these steps, Indian pharmaceutical companies can also play a very important role in improving patient health outcomes in India.
In addition to the above examples, many Indian drug companies are using social media platforms like X (Twitter) and Facebook to educate patients about diseases and conditions. They are also partnering with doctors and other healthcare professionals to create informative content about healthcare. For example, in 2022, the Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance (IPA) launched a campaign called “IPA Health Talk” on Twitter. The campaign aims to provide patients with accurate and timely information about a variety of health topics. The IPA also partners with doctors and other healthcare professionals to create and share informative content about healthcare on its social media channels.
These initiatives by Indian pharmaceutical companies are expected to help improve access to credible information on healthcare and disease for patients in India. Such endeavors are now well poised to increase manifold in the years ahead.
Patients’ quest for trusted information from cyberspace is valuable because it can lead to better health outcomes. By having access to information about their conditions, treatment options, and clinical trials, patients can make more informed decisions about their healthcare. They can also become more empowered to advocate for themselves and to get the care they need.
However, it is important for patients to be aware of the potential risks of seeking health information online. The quality and accuracy of this information can vary widely, and it can be difficult for patients to assess the credibility of the information they find online. Patients should also be careful not to misinterpret information or to delay seeking medical attention if they are self-treating based on online information.
Overall, the value of patients’ quest for trusted information from cyberspace outweighs the risks. By being informed and critical of the information they find online, patients can use cyberspace to improve their health and well-being.
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.