Health Marketers Drag Feet as Patients Flock to Social Media

With health care reform capturing the national agenda and health-related blogs booming, health information sites and sponsorships are making a sharp turn into social media. Users are increasingly sharing medical experiences with each other and are seeking advice from other patients, and potentially from brands. Online health communities give people what they can’t get from experts: support, personal experiences, and direct answers from other people. But while patients seem to easily gravitate to DIY health education, marketers have been less enthusiastic.

Case in point: Health site WebMD, founded back in 1996, has been losing ground to rivals Everyday Health and with their focus on user communities. MedHelp now boasts 9.5 million monthly visitors compared to WebMD’s 60 million. In early March WebMD fought back, with its new Health Exchange site, putting the community content in center stage. Registered visitors create or contribute to public or invitation-only groups. The non-searchable invitation groups are designed to allow people to securely exchange information with friends and family.

On all the exchanges, the topics are chosen by the users and the content is “gently structured” into silos such as tips, discussions and resources to aid in navigation, says Nan Forte, executive VP of WebMD.

To address credibility issues, the exchange site carries a small-print disclaimer stating that the user-generated exchanges and posts are not vetted by WebMD staff or its panel of doctors. Offered alongside these user exchanges are expert-moderated forums on the same topics, which are endorsed by WebMD. Marketers are also invited to create branded exchanges and host consumer discussions about health and wellness. All such exchanges are labeled as advertiser sponsored. But by April 5, no sponsorships deals had gone live, though a company rep says “several” will start by summer.

In the meantime, Jeff Arnold, who founded WebMD and left in 2000, is working on a rival site, partnering with Dr. Mehmet Oz (of Oprah Winfrey fame), Discovery Communications, Sony Pictures and Winfrey’s company Harpo Productions. The new entity, called Sharecare, plans to provide users with health info by topic from several points of view – celebrity physicians, hospitals, high-profile health authors, local health providers and other users.

Marketers can also offer branded info from their in-house research. The first sponsor is Dove, which is providing more than 2,000 answers on the topic of skin care and will have its own page on the site. However, other sponsors have not been easy to come by, say sources, and that may be contributing to delays in the site’s launch. When the Sharecare platform was announced last November, the site was reported to launch in early 2010, but now the date has been set for summer. In the interim, a subset of the initial Sharecare questions and answers has been running on the site of TV’s “The Dr. Oz Show.” With Sharecare, “we have invited everyone from experts to new moms to share insights, and with this information comes a combined IQ on health that is greater than the sum of its parts,” says Dr. Oz.

How important is health care social media? In late 2009, the HealthCare New Media Marketing Conference reported that about 60 million consumers share their health experiences online and 216 U.S. hospitals use social media. Researchers are mining social media sites as a rich database of disease treatment and patient experience. That data leads to insights into the treatment of diseases such as Parkinson’s, says healthcare ad agency GSW Worldwide. Social media also is a source of firsthand information about symptoms and treatments for doctors who typically haven’t had enough comparative patient information to know which drug is the best choice, reports GSW.

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