Opportunities and Challenges in Digital Consumer Health

Promoting health offers an interesting paradox for consumer health. On one side, emerging digital technologies allow more people easy access to comprehensive health information via the internet, mobile devices and social media. On the other, increased market competition and stricter regulatory activity make companies struggle to get their message across in digital media.

Word of mouth, a significant driver of sales in consumer health, is impressively transforming thanks to digital technology. More than ever, social networks, companies and health organizations are creating virtual communities and blogs where consumers can share their knowledge and experience treating a condition. Examples of virtual communities include Health Central, Revolution Health, Patients Like Me and Daily Strength. The beauty of this trend is that consumers from different parts of the world are communicating in the same platform. Virtual borders are erasing physical borders. For example, a person suffering from constant migraines in Colombia may find encouragement from virtual support groups in Spain. Moreover, people are now gaining knowledge about new therapies, drugs and brands not yet available in their own country.

Similarly, digital health tracking devices ranging from simple weight loss to monitoring of chronic conditions are bringing a new definition to the concept of self-care in all countries. Today, millions of people have immediate access to health applications (apps) that can be downloaded into computers and smart phones. Even in poor countries, telemedicine continues to expand at successful rates as technology infrastructure improves. A low-income person may forgo many non-essential things, but not mobile devices such as phones. Health information is now available to them at least via texting and voice messaging.

Web-based health games have become an excellent digital tool to communicate key health issues to the population, especially to children and adolescents. The National Institute of Health in the United States lists more than 50 health games from professional health organizations and research institutes. The non-profit organization of Games for Health is now expanding in Europe with an ambitious agenda to promote health information and self-care initiatives through novel gaming options for children and the elderly populations.

The use of digital media by companies has been mixed. In some cases, local regulation has prevented them from actively promoting their brands and products in the internet and mobile devices. Fears of irresponsible self-medication among the population push regulators to restrict advertising and promotion of consumer health products. In other cases, companies have been experimenting with simple and rather conservative social media initiatives in Facebook, Twitter, Google +, Badoo, hi5, Netlog, and YouTube to promote a limited number of brands and products, or to publicise corporate social responsibility activities. Fears of breaking the law make pharmaceutical companies relatively shy in the promotion of over-the-counter (OTC) drugs using full advertising capabilities in social media. Yet, there are a few exceptions. Procter & Gamble promotes brands Vicks and Prilosec in Facebook, while GlaxoSmithKline Plc uses Twitter to promote FiberChoice and Bayer AG offers the BayerTVinternational channel in YouTube. Brazilian company Hypermarcas launched a Facebook page and Merck & Co just joined Twitter in September 2011. Companies promoting vitamins, dietary supplements, weight management and sports nutrition have an easier time using social media since regulation is not as stringent as such products are usually marketed as foodstuffs.

Besides the apparent challenges of using social media in the corporate setting, a larger influx of generic drugs and private label options are putting significant competitive pressure on standard brands across the world. Private label and generic drug manufacturers are gaining recognition and market share through clever initiatives in social media. Walgreen Co, a leading drugstore retailer in the United States, began heavily promoting its private label using social media in 2011 reaching one million fans in Facebook. In another interesting development, giant generic drugs company, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd, is using social media tools with real time interaction to improve its supply chain operations among supply, manufacturing, production, delivery, marketing and retailing departments for the Ratiopharm subsidiary. The goal of the company is to establish efficient cycle times and improve customer service.

New opportunities to communicate health in the digital world will continue to evolve. The need for trustworthy, accurate and comprehensive communication on health issues, products and brands will only keep rising as people seek immediate access to information. The timely delivery of information keeps shortening to a matter of seconds. Regulatory agencies are waking up to this new digital reality and slowly beginning to understand the implications of social media and mobile applications, that will eventually lead them to draft guidance and requirements for the health industry. One thing is for sure, companies will want to make sure that the information on their brands and products is at the “tip” of the new digital consumer.