Consumers find it's a "My" medical world online

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The "my" consumerárevolution is not just about music and cell phones. It has changed consumer behavior around health issues, as patients and their families use search engines as a source for background research on illnesses and health.

Social networks, health Web sites and blogs give consumers more power to discuss their situations with others, while posting their opinions of doctors, health practices and medical regimes. According to a recent Forrester Research report, 84 percent of online consumers have researched healthcare topics online in the past 12 months, while 81 percent visited healthcare Web sites.

"We are seeing an increase in consumers who are going online to research health topics," says Julie Hanson, analyst at Forrester. "In response, there has been a rise in healthcare sites out there for consumers to view."

What does this online consumer engagement mean for marketers in the healthcare industry? Relevancy and sensitivity are key factors.

Careful approach to marketing

Consumers are providing information about their concerns and needs, but not necessarily to be the target of a million online ads. The marketer must provide targeted messaging that will help the patient or the caregiver in their search.

"Online consumers tend to gravitate around sites and forums that provide good value and good information, and there is a fine line between valuable information and marketing," says John Lane, SVP of marketing at health search site Healthline.com.

"If the Web site comes in with a heavy-handed marketing approach, then you will see that organic community environment evaporate. Marketing people need to take a hands-off approach and ask if consumers want to be involved in newsletters and other value offerings," he continued.

These vehicles are a common way to engage consumers. Healthline, San Francisco, already provides its visitors with such offerings. It recently began using a behavioral, targeted online ad network, Tacoda, to serve targeted ads and information. But according to Lane, this has to be done in a sensitive manner.

"If you are on a forum about a Ford Mustang, then you wouldn't mind seeing an ad about Mustangs, but if you are on a forum about adult onset diabetes, you are probably less excited to be seeing an ad," Lane added.

Healthline.com lets users search from a list of symptoms and health topics to find their information. On the side of the page, a symptom search for "cough" serves up an ad for an asthma inhaler; a search for "vomiting" serves an ad with no brand name, just a question such as, "What does your period have to do with migraines?" and a link to an informational site and then to a microsite for information on a migraine product.

A click through to the very sensitive topic "breast cancer" serves an ad asking about wanting a break from the vomiting that comes from chemotherapy with a link to a medication that helps prevent the nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapies.

This approach was echoed by Tacoda, which will be working with Healthline.com to further its behavioral targeting.

"We want to be sure that we are not crossing the line of privacy with consumers," says Larry Allen, SVP of business development and marketing at Tacoda, in an e-mail. "Long-term, our business is built on trust and we do not want to do anything to jeopardize that."

Custom healthcare searches

Internet titans Google and Microsoft are looking into personalization. Google's latest foray, Google Health, currently only an internal prototype, could give consumers more power to manage health issues and regimes. The prototype includes a personalized "health profile" for medications, conditions and allergies; a personalized "health guide" for suggested treatments, drug interactions, and diet and exercise regimens; and directories of nearby doctors with reminder messages for refilling prescriptions and setting up doctor's appointments.

Though Google is apprehensive to talk much about the service at this early stage, Adam Bosworth, VP of engineering at Google, has commented on its direction in his recent blog.

"Consumers should be able to discover the most relevant health information possible," Bosworth says in the post. "Consumers should have direct access to personalized services to help them get the best and most convenient possible health support. Consumers should be able to learn from and educate those in similar health circumstances and from their health practitioners."

Google already hosts Web searches on its Google Co-op platform that help patients easily find health information. There, Google and the health community have labeled sites and pages across the Web, making it easier for users to refine health queries and locate information. Consumers who search on Google about issues or treatments, like asthma or Prozac, can refine their query with such subheadings as "symptoms" and "treatments." A click on "treatment" refines and reorders the search results.

Social networks of support

Along with search and informational sites, there are now social networks in the health world. Fir example, Dailystrength.org is a social networking site lets those facing an issue can join a support community, start a wellness journal, share advice, recommend doctors, link to Web sites with disease information and even send other members a virtual hug.

"Our social network is focused on health and facilitates people finding others who are experiencing the same health condition, life challenge or difficulty - people who understand," says Joshua DeFord, co-founder of Dailystrength.org.

The site's biggest groups are the Mental Health communities, including depression, anxiety, abuse, alcoholism, and bereavement. But there is also a strong membership in physical health communities, including MS, autism, PTSD, fibromyalgia, diabetes and asthma. The social network has grown virally. Content is focused on the users and there is no marketing.

"We have very little content on our site, but instead focus on offering great ways for members to find others who have experience with their issue who they can learn from," DeFord adds.

GoodHealthAdvertising.com, an ad network of health sites, tries to bridge the gap between this consumer safe-space and the medical professionals and drug companies. The site works with partner MedHelp.org, offering patient-to-physician forums where people with serious health concerns and issues pay to ask questions directly of leading specialists and physicians from top-ranked medical institutions.

"Clearly, anyone who is willing to pay to ask a question directly of a medical professional is a serious and engaged user, perhaps much more so than the casual information gatherer," says Robert Kadar, president of Good Health Advertising.

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