Making digital an integral part of medical communications: lessons from clinical practice

Candice O'Sullivan
February 18, 2013

 

Please note: The original post of this article is available at pharmaphorum.

The practice of medicine is not static; it is a fluid and evolving discipline. Prescribing new drugs, learning new procedures and applying new medical technologies are integral to providing up-to-date, best-practice care; there will always be a newer, faster, better ‘pill’ for patients to swallow.

Communications channels have a lot in common with pills. In their simplest form, they are all merely delivery devices. They come in many different forms. Some suit some conditions better than others. Which one/s you choose depends on what has been proven most effective, what your desired outcomes are and who is on the receiving end. And channels, like pills, will always change, as the next best thing comes along. Doctors are challenged throughout their careers to stay current and to continually incorporate new molecules, therapies and clinical paradigms into everyday practice so what key lessons can we borrow from clinical practice to make digital (or for that matter, any new media) an integral part of our ‘current practice’?

1. Always work from first principles

A true practitioner (in any profession) will always work from first principles. When there are too many things happening for a clinician to comprehend all at once, the ability to go back to basics can be life saving (literally). The first action a trauma doctor takes in an emergency is to assess airway, breathing and circulation (the ABCs of basic resuscitation). He doesn’t move on or begin to think about anything else until he has those parameters right. Without vital signs, it would be a fruitless exercise.
Digital as a medium presents us with a vast array of choices. Whether it’s a comprehensive disease portal, a sophisticated online classroom, or a 140-character broadcast, digital introduces many more channels into the communications mix. It is easy to become paralysed or side tracked by the possibilities. How can you see the forest through the trees when there is so much going on? Try not to focus on the trees because the medium (traditional or digital) is not the message. It never has been. Fundamentally, channels (digital or otherwise) are tactics and tactics should always be defined by strategy. A doctor does not decide what treatment he is going to prescribe before he first understands the patient’s problems, their clinical needs and the context in which treatment is to be administered.
A true communications practitioner will always begin by defining the message within the context of a defined audience – and won’t move on until he has these right. And so the first step to making digital an integral part of your medical communications is to draw your attention away from all the bells and whistles and to start with the first principles (the ABCs, if you like) of effective communication. Like a clinician, you too need to first understand the problem (the communications challenge), what it is you are trying to achieve (core communications objectives), and how you are going to approach the issue (a sound communications strategy) before devising your treatment plan (communications plan). This process requires discipline but will make it a lot easier to conceive how digital media can help you meet your objectives – by helping you understand exactly what those objectives are.
So next time you are tempted to start your med comms campaign by channel surfing, think of this quote from web strategist, Brad Frost, on the related topic of device fatigue: ‘My remedy for device fatigue has been to take a step back and let my eyes go unfocused. Much like a Magic Eye, I can then see the hidden pictures behind the stippled noise that is the device landscape. This remedy helps me cope, gets me to stop caring about things that don’t really matter, and gets me to care about the broader trends [opportunities] the Magic Eye unveils.’

2. Be patient-centric (i.e. Be audience-centric)

Part of our problem with integrating digital communication into ‘everyday practice’ may be that formal communication training has until recently, focused almost entirely on the ‘shot-put approach’, i.e. throw out a well-conceived, well-targeted, well-delivered message and hope it lands when and where you want it to. Not surprisingly, this approach originated in classical Greek times and has meant that for a very long time, effective communication has been defined as content, delivery and persuasion. Until digital came along, no one imagined it could be otherwise.
Digital media, however, now demands that we embrace the ‘frisbee approach’, i.e. design (and expect) communications to come back; allow for interaction and feedback. This, however, means that now, more than ever, we need to understand:

  • Our target audience (and segments thereof)
  • How they like to receive information and
  • Where they go to search for information.

By putting your audience at the centre of your planning, you will ensure that your messaging ends up where your audience is, where your audience likes to be and where your audience wants to be (but need and appreciate your help to get to). By taking an audience-centric approach, you’ll naturally incorporate the most relevant, useful and regularly accessed channels into your med comms program, not just what’s new or flashy. Be audience-led, not technology-led.

3. Know what your treatment (i.e. digital) options are

It is a career-long habit for clinicians to stay current with what is currently considered best practice. Similarly, it can be a full-time job to keep up with the digital landscape. Unfortunately, there is no easy way out of this one. You simply need to make it a habit to get up to speed with new technologies quickly and have processes in place that will support you to do this. To realise the potential and make the most of the opportunities these new channels provide, you need to understand them. This will enable you to seamlessly incorporate them into your communications mix and to understand where and when they can add value compared to previous modes of delivery.

4. Only use something new if it will provide a better or best patient (end-user) experience

Why do doctors prescribe new medicines? First and foremost, to improve patient outcomes but also to improve the process of providing care and to provide a better patient experience throughout the treatment journey. An excellent example is the use of newer chemotherapy agents to reduce side effects. Our job as communicators is to use the technology available to enrich the content we are delivering and to provide a better learning experience.
It’s a simple analogy but remember when everybody stopped using overhead projectors and transparencies and started using PowerPoint? The content being delivered was the same. What differed was the mode of delivery and the improved experience the technology enabled. Digital technology provides the opportunity to engage healthcare professionals in new, innovative and different ways. So when you are choosing a ‘delivery device’, prioritise the experience it will provide the end-user and how it will make their journey with you more inviting, more compelling and more enjoyable.

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From my perspective as a communications strategist, the only thing different about how we deliver medical communications in the digital age is the delivery device/s we use. As such, I spend a lot of time diverting my clients’ attention away from the glitz and the glamour of the latest widget in an effort to ‘unblind’ them and to remind them of what we know does work – taking a step back, going back to first principles and articulating a communications strategy that will accurately and reliably inform what channels are most appropriate and most likely to be valued by an audience. Within this context, digital tactics become a direct extension of our strategic thinking, sewn into the fabric of our thinking, not just a loss leader.

By Candice O’Sullivan, Director and Head of Strategy at Wellmark. You can find Candice on Google+ at +Candice O’Sullivan.

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