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Health care marketers taking the pulse of consumers' online habits

July 20, 2009

When actor Patrick Swayze’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer was first reported on March 5, 2008, the term “pancreatic cancer” was pretty low on Google’s list of popular searches. But the next day, traffic for the same search term spiked to six times its average.

This is precisely the type of information health care organizations should be paying attention to, according to a study by Ball State University’s Center for Media Design that tracked health-related search patterns using Google Trends, a free tool that determines the popularity of key words.

The study’s main takeaway: Health care marketers can adapt to, and even use to their advantage, the online search habits of consumers.

Understanding when and why people search for specific health-related terms is vital to attracting more visitors (i.e. patients) to a Web site.

While celebrity illnesses and sudden outbreaks—like the H1N1 swine flu virus in April—cannot be predicted, the Ball State study found that most health topics follow yearly and weekly cyclical patterns. For example, the key word “depression” is searched more frequently midweek than during the weekends and a search for “weight loss” soars at the end of every year, when people are preparing New Year’s resolutions.

So how are health care organizations using these metrics to their advantage? By predicting what people will be searching for and offering useful content, said Bill Vaughn, a project manager at the Center for Media Design who led the study.

“Looking at seasonal trends, a hospital or doctor’s office could easily find out when people start to worry about the flu. Is it just before flu season? During peak winter months? Once they know, they can post fresh content to their Web site such as announcing they’re providing flu vaccinations,” Vaughn said.

In order to post “fresh content,” health organizations will need to embrace the tools of Web 2.0—such as interactive blogs, discussion boards, forums and videos, which provide for higher search-engine rankings. While the health care industry has typically lagged behind the trend, some Indianapolis hospitals are responding.

Take Riley Hospital for Children, which posted content to its news page in May about preventing lawn mower accidents around children. A Google Trends graph clearly maps May as the peak month for people to search for “lawn mower.”

Whether people are searching to buy one or to find information about accident prevention, Riley’s “fresh” content means its page will rank higher in a search engine like Google than if the information were stuck on a stagnant, general page about summer safety for kids.

Clarian Health also updates its bariatric physicians blog an average of three to five times a month, giving it the No. 1 ranking for a Google search of “Indianapolis bariatrics.”

Bloomington-based Cook Group is taking a different approach to Web 2.0, using videos and online forums to connect potential customers with its products.

In April, Cook launched CookARTLab.com, a separate educational Web site geared toward infertility doctors and lab technicians. The site’s main attraction is a video tour of an in-vitro fertilization lab, prominently featuring Cook’s medical devices for ovum aspiration, embryo transfers and more.

It’s no accident that the video is segmented into five portions, one for each day of a typical in-vitro cycle.

“We wanted to create an environment that spoke to these lab professionals, so the videos are geared toward what their typical day might look like,” said Neal Bridgett, director of business development for the women’s health division.

The site attracts an unusual number of international visitors, which was one of Cook’s goals, since the video transcript is translated into five languages. Bridgett said transcending language barriers attracts attention from other countries—and their lucrative markets.

As of mid-June, the video had been viewed 12,514 times, the company said.

In 2007, Cook also launched MensHealthPD.com, a consumer-oriented site about Peyronie’s disease, a form of erectile dysfunction. The site’s database of physicians, videos for frequently asked questions, and live chat sessions help spark discussion about the disease, which benefits the company’s urological products division.

With the launch of these Web sites, Bridgett admits there was initial reluctance in allowing such a high level of interactivity.

“The medical industry has been slower to adopt this because we don’t want to position ourselves between the patient and the physician; we want to facilitate communication between them,” he said.

Ethical considerations are just one worry of pharmaceutical companies as they await word from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about what’s allowed in the Web 2.0 world when it comes to prescription drugs.

Eli Lilly and Co. has avoided becoming involved with blogs, discussion boards, videos and anything of the sort, said David Shaffer, manager of neuroscience communications.

“Whenever we become aware of someone experiencing a new side effect, we’re required to report that to the FDA,” Shaffer said. “Imagine us setting up a discussion board and someone with the username nighthawk3000 ends up talking about theirs. How are we supposed to collect information from this person?”

Likewise, most pharmaceutical companies, like Lilly, pay for Google Adwords, a service that allows Web pages to turn up as “sponsored links” during a search.

Shaffer said the FDA recently ruled it unacceptable to link to a list of the drug’s side effects rather than listing the effects directly on the Google ad.

With a June 18 post on Twitter from Denmark-based Novo Nordisk Inc. linking a trademarked drug name to its list of side effects, Shaffer wonders if “re-tweets,” or posts that are shared by other Twitter users, would include that link. If it didn’t, the pharmaceutical company might be liable.

Until he has the answer to these problems, along with clearer guidelines from the FDA about interactive content, Lilly will be waiting, watching and listening to determine the rules of the road before entering the Web 2.0 world.

“I don’t think we’re missing out,” Shaffer said. “We understand that we need to be careful because we’re talking about human health, which needs to be treated differently than most consumer brands.”

As for the return on investment of the tactics, Vaughn, the lead researcher of the Ball State study, said there is plenty of software available to track traffic of a specific site, but nothing aside from Google Trends that tracks the popularity of search terms.

And Google has 68.6 percent of the search-engine market share, according to the study.•

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