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A New Approach to an Old Problem

By Sam Shah, Director of Digital Development, NHS England

Sam Shah, Director of Digital Development, NHS England

Digital health, healthcare and marketing are becoming intertwined. As the digital health market grows and healthcare becomes more digitised, the techniques used to promote services and generate patient uptake are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Digital marketing is an industry in its own right with a multitude of techniques being applied to all aspects of life, including healthcare.

Marketing in healthcare has been growing for some time and arguably started off with advertising of products and services, with everything from toothpaste through to procedures under anaesthesia. The internet era changed the channels through which marketing takes place as well as the tools that are used but the principles still remain. Digital marketing is an overarching term that includes all marketing efforts that use an electronic device or the internet. Organisations use digital channels such as search engines, email, social media and websites to connect with current and prospective customers or patients. Globally, digital health organisations are using a range of techniques from content marketing through to social media marketing and email marketing to attract citizens to use a particular product or service.

Within the UK, and more specifically within England, most healthcare is delivered through the NHS. There are some private services available but the majority of care is still provided by the NHS. As the NHS evolves, so do the services that are offered with an increasing number of GPs offering online consultation options for their patients. In addition to Online GP services, there are also other digital health products on the market, including Apps to book appointments and view clinical records. There are new apps that are being developed all the time, designed to help people better manage their own health.

"Healthcare does have impressive data sets, if used correctly these could also help drive a digital marketing approach to target those individuals who have the greatest propensity to benefit from healthcare"

One of the difficulties is knowing what to market and who to target, which is a challenge for any digital marketeer but even more complex in healthcare as the need is not really a consumer need but includes a clinical, emotional and practical need. It could be all too easy to analogise a digital health app to something like a take away pizza app but the users will be different and they will have different needs. Whilst a take away pizza app may meet a practical need, it was never really designed to meet a clinical need and probably not designed to meet an emotional need, therefore the approach to marketing and promo digital health will inevitably be different.

In the retail sector, they have demonstrated the power of data driven digital marketing and for many years have used multiple data points to optimise how they target customers. Healthcare is clearly very different to the retail sector, however healthcare does have similarly impressive data sets, if used correctly these could also help drive a digital marketing approach to target those individuals who have the greatest propensity to benefit from healthcare and in particular digital health solutions.

Digital marketing in healthcare could help citizens access the services they need, for example digital marketing techniques could be applied to the problems such as screening and help result in uptake of screening services. Similar methods could be used to help promote new clinical services, especially those in primary healthcare or services designed to promote access to urgent care. Given the changing trends in the way people use the internet, digital marketing may offer a new channel to access the population which could in turn help promote health.

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