The emergence of “e-patients,” the advent of “participatory medicine,” the rise of “info-fluentials.” These are just a few trends shaping health care marketing and public relations strategies today. 

Consumers’ sophistication keeps rising, with ready access to information that influences their healthcare decisions – from YouTube videos on the latest surgeries to dozens of websites ranking hospitals and physicians. As a result, prospective patients bring higher expectations about healthcare quality, outcomes and individualized treatment.
A PEW Research Center survey documents the impact:
• 61% of all adults get healthcare information online (80% of all Internet users).
• 60% said online research affected a decision on how to treat an illness or condition.
• 53% said it led them to ask a doctor new questions or to get a second opinion.
Against this backdrop, it’s crucial to mine new opportunities to connect, inform, engage – and be of real value – to healthcare consumers and referrers. Helping consumers make good health care decisions is a sound marketing approach – and a process that begins earlier than ever before.
Be Found … Credible
Consumers make judgments, pro or con, about you long before they are in contact, so help them make the right ones. Andrea Knibbs of Smith & Knibbs Public Relations advises, “Make it easy not only to find you online but to find you credible. You can influence — but not control – search results, so grab the reins where you can.”
Make an online “audit” a regular exercise and an integral part of every marketing campaign, Knibbs suggests. Take a “holistic” look at your online presence – not just your website. Is the content aligned with the services that you want to be known for today? Before you launch a new service line or announce a major change, strengthen your public presence to support that business objective or challenge.
It’s not only smart marketing, it’s professional and personal reputation management “insurance.” “A positive online presence documenting your expertise, professional achievements and performance is a ‘trust bank’ to draw upon if your reputation is ever at risk,” Knibbs says.
There are dozens of cost-effective, simple steps to build online content and search results, she notes. Be a source for the media but also be your own news bureau, bypassing the traditional gatekeepers with search engine optimized news releases, videos or a whitepaper tied to your business objectives.
Build your physicians’ presence on professional and general networking sites. With the depth of information these sites allow today, they can be an important supplement to a website, Knibbs adds. Take advantage of sites such as AVVO, the physician rating site and e-patient forum. At no cost, you can significantly boost your “searchability,” claiming a profile page, authoring brief Health Guides and participating in Ask the Doctor forums. And don’t overlook the basics: See that your accrediting organizations’ CVs include links to your online info.
Empower Health Care Consumers
"If there’s one thing that the pharmaceutical industry has proven since they began marketing prescription drugs on TV, it is that consumer behavior can be greatly influenced by effective advertising," says leading South Florida Creative Director Stuart Dornfield. "Today, 1 out of 3 patients ask a doctor about a specific medication. So the question is: Can hospitals and diagnostic centers also empower consumers to choose their services for specialized care? Ultimately, that’s what healthcare marketers are seeking,” he adds.
"I’m finding the legal departments at several local hospitals easing some restrictions on making claims," Dornfield notes. He’s seeing an escalation in marketing expenditures in both traditional and non-traditional media, and notes webinars are coming into play as a PR and marketing tactic.
Focus for the Biggest Bang
Marketing pro Lee Jones advises, “Ask what brings you the patient population and referrals you want for the least cost – and stay focused on techniques that drive measurable results.”
It may be as simple and direct as targeted public speaking, offering free informative lectures or being at community events, she adds. Cross promotion, partnering with other physicians or healthcare organizations with complementary specialties, can pay off, too. Maybe it’s focusing on your current patients to increase word of mouth. Double down on whatever is working to stay strong during this time of economic uncertainty.
Knibbs advises clients, “The good news is there are more ways than ever to build a presence and market your services, whatever your goals and budget. A strategic, cost-effective approach can keep that from also being the bad news."