Thursday, 8 June 2017

Excuse me Doctor, I read this on the internet…?

I recently became aware of an article being shared across social media from a popular tabloid newspaper, informing readers that a bladder drug that is widely prescribed here in the UK increases a patient’s risk of developing dementia by more than fifty percent. In light of these risks, doctors recommend that it should no longer be used at all - information that was due to be presented at the European Association of Urology conference but was not yet publicly available.

Having studied Medical Sciences at undergraduate level and now working at Branding Science, naturally I was interested in where this information had come from. There was no reference made to the scientific evidence or research behind the claims made in the article, leaving readers (and especially those currently being prescribed this medication) unable to determine the accuracy or relevance of the statements made and consequently make a fully informed decision regarding any choices they may subsequently take regarding their treatment. Indeed on reading some of the comments it was clear that some readers were not in any way interested in the scientific rigour of the article and were taking the information presented at face value.  Some bladder patients were even saying that they were going to immediately stop taking their medication before even consulting with any relevant healthcare professional.

It is hardly surprising that the effect of what is seen on the internet can be dramatic, especially as patients can often feel overwhelmed by their health conditions and desperate to find a cure and feel better. 

So where do people go to try to find out what is best to do for their health?

Patients no longer rely solely on their doctors and nurses as their ‘primary and authoritative’ source of advice on their health.  Nowadays they will be influenced by many different factors. With the internet at the tip of our fingers, patients will commonly look online for more information about their condition, medications or symptoms.

As an industry, pharmaceutical companies have a responsibility to the patients taking their drugs and the doctors who prescribe them. We can use various aids to inform doctors (and patients) about the benefits and risks of a particular medicine (often supported by the intelligent use of market research), but there is little or no rigorous control over content is released by the media, or what information (positive and negative) may be shared by patient support groups and on online support forums, or, indeed what is gleaned by talking to trusted friends and family. 

But surely having a greater access to information is a good thing?

It can be, especially if it increases awareness of specific health issues or leads to a patient feeling better able to manage their health. Yet what happens if the ‘information’ is unhelpful, inaccurate, and delivered in a way that isn’t easily understandable or indeed relevant?

Look up “best treatment for cancer” online, and there are over 200 million websites for you to choose from. Alongside the up-to-date, evidence-based sites, there are also a large number of deeply unscientific sites promoting among other things “natural cures”, ‘specialised diets’, strange exercise programmes’ and even DIY cancer cure kits!

How do people navigate the web and filter through the vast array of sites to find those that are free from bias, authoritative and grounded in evidence? Are people looking at these information sources and able to decipher the medical terminology and jargon along with any detailed scientific information published online (as well as the information that isn’t factually correct) in order to be able to make an educated choice?

So what can we do?

The internet will never replace the profound human dimension of the doctor-patient relationship. Understanding how an illness affects a patient, and the importance of finding the right treatment for them, helps empower patients to better manage and feel in control of their health. Healthcare professionals need to identify reliable healthcare websites, give information to patients that is accurate, and build relationships that encourage open dialogue so that patients feel able to come to them with their concerns.

Here at Branding Science, we believe in patient centricity and care about getting it right for patients. Through our intelligent market research techniques and understanding of patient insights we help our clients to build a brand that truly addresses the needs of patients and fosters a relationship of open communication with healthcare professionals.

Email us at to find out more about how Branding Science can help you build a brand that understands and meets the needs of patients

Written by Linzie Reason, Marketing and Communications Executive at Branding Science 

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