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The new social realities for health

The healthcare communications industry is changing fast, but it still lags behind other industries in leveraging new technologies. Three industry experts discuss the issues facing healthcare in the year ahead.

 Practitioners from the pharma and healthcare marketing worlds have started to experiment with social media as a technique to improve patient education and customer relationships. It’s a sensitive area, as the transparency required by the speed and visibility of social media is difficult to reconcile with regulatory frameworks and the lack of experienced brand social voices in the space.

created on Thursday 16 Feb 2017

"This is a reality: if healthcare doesn't move there, tech companies will, and already are."
Michael Exon, CDM
(Social strategies for healthcare: L-R: Dick Dunford, Rebecca Rhodes, Michael Exon. Discussion chaired by Louise Benson, Executive Festival Director Lions Health)

Effective social media practice requires a level of openness and a conversational style that are culturally unfamiliar to the sector.


For Rebecca Rhodes, Chief Creative Officer from Golin/Virgo Health Practice, transparency was the major industry challenge that emerged in 2016. Rhodes calls it the “perfect storm” of big data and digital and consumer empowerment.

The issue of restrictive comms practices isn’t a new one, but the fact they were developed in a pre-social age is making things even tougher. “Regulations have always been tight,” explains Rhodes, “but they're old fashioned and antiquated. They don't make sense in the world that we live in. Pharma companies are having to become more transparent… social media is an area they need to be more comfortable with.” 
“It’s always painful to come to speed with things quickly... it's happening. There is no choice.”
Rebecca Rhodes, Virgo/Golin Health Practice
The positive side of transparency

Avoiding social is no longer an option. Patients are all over it, which means industry has to be there, and not just a silent presence in the social space, pharma has to get involved. It’s a big shift in mindset, and one that’s not going to be easy. 


Does it have to be a painful process? Well like they say: no pain, no gain. "It’s always painful to come to speed with things quickly," Rhodes emphasises: "it is happening. There is no choice. Most companies are getting that, [just] at different speeds."

But while the sharing of information and the use of social puts transparency top of the agenda, it doesn’t have to be thought of as a necessary evil. Yes, the pharma industry has had a bad rep in the past, but new social channels provide ways for brands to talk about what’s good in the sector. “The good that goes on behind the scenes and the social impact is a massive topic we've all talked about,” says Rhodes, “In Cannes everyone is talking the opportunity for pharma companies to talk about the ‘beyond the pill’ piece, what they're doing for patients and patient groups, and the immense development that goes on into the drugs that are created. That never gets talked about.” 

Dick Dunford, Creative Partner at Loooped agrees that social’s big advantage is in the broader conversation. “It's interesting pharma brands are looking for other ways to demonstrate their added value, whether it's sharing knowledge drive interactions with healthcare professionals or patients. 
"They’ve got to cross the Rubicon and actually go and meet their customer, understand who they are, what they are and what they need, rather than looking at trends from a data perspective."
Dick Dunford, Loooped
Bupa create an interactive music video to connect young people with health data. Bronze Health & Wellness Lion winner 2016. See full credits on the Cannes Lions Archive.
Knowing the customer, not the data

Social also allows brands to listen to what consumers are doing. The public – and patients – are standing up and asking questions, feeling empowered they can do, now they’ve got the channels. And there’s also inspiration to be drawn from other sectors. 


“Consumer brands have been listening to the conversations around their brands for a long time,” says Michael Exon, Senior Digital Strategist at health brand specialists CDM. “I think healthcare is starting to wake up to the opportunities there. That means tapping into those social conversations, listening to what people are saying, and getting insight from that, responding to it and engaging with the audience, maybe at an educational level rather than a promotional level.”

“I think pharma brands understand they need to listen to the conversation,” agrees Dunford, “but they also need to participate. They've always kept the customer at arm’s length, and the patient as well. They've got to have a conversation with them and understand what's driving their interactions, their behaviours, and understand how they can play a role in that situation. They’ve got to cross the Rubicon and actually go and meet their customer, understand who they are, what they are and what they need, rather than looking at trends from a data perspective. It needs to be a two way thing now and be much more inclusive from both sides.” 


Exon agrees: “There are things we can do in social - it's not just about promotion - we don't have to think about always selling ourselves in a direct way. It's about the other ways we can interact. It's about having engagement in other ways, it's about having other services and other benefits.”

Tipping points and technical predators


It might seem like an easy choice, but the resistance to embracing this bold new transparent and social world is very real. Exon believes the tipping point is in sight, and while pharma might be slow travelling towards it, the marketplace, and technology are bringing it closer from other direction: “There are some brands starting to be brave, and I wonder if some of the newer commercial realities - the arrival of some of the consumer and wellness brands in the wider healthcare space - might push us to be a little more adventurous and daring. There's a lot of talk in technology around that virtual assistant in your pocket, on your smartphone. This is a reality: if healthcare doesn't move there, tech companies will, and already are. This is the tipping point where we do need to become a bit braver.” 

Unlike other parts of the creative industry, the penalties for overstepping the mark are very real. It’s a major factor in client thinking, but it certainly feels like they’re taking the initiatives in challenging the regulators: “I think the industry is becoming braver,” encourages Rhodes, “and this is what makes this particular time quite exciting. What's quite interesting is clients are saying ‘I don't know whether I can quite push this because it's not been done before, shall I have a go? Am I going to get fined? Is it worth it?’ The regulatory bodies will have to change because they're playing by rules that were created 20,30 years ago and it's going to be a two way thing. It'll be really interesting to watch. Even in the next year, it'll change quite a lot.”

Exon thinks the road-map is clear: “If we're able to think more imaginatively, think like a consumer company then we start talking about things like gamification, loyalty and reward, active conversations in the round. It's a much less ‘them and us’ attitude, and much smarter and holistic relationship with our audiences. It is early stages but really exciting times.”


New thinking in social, new perspectives on patient relationships, and the influence of consumer brand strategies are starting to leave their mark on healthcare and pharma brands. Exciting times, it seems are definitely ahead. 

Lions Health 2016

Rebecca Rhodes, Dick Dunford and Michael Exon were interviewed for this feature as part of the Creative Conversations series. See video from this session here.  

Passes for Lions Health, including a special four-day pass that includes Lions Health and Lions Innovation are available