Why Healthcare Needs to Take Personalisation, Personally

By Tristan Morris


There is very little as personal as the health of our friends, family and, of course, ourselves. This has never been more obvious than in the current global pandemic, with thousands of lives lost and many more hospitalised, as governments and health authorities struggle to communicate, diagnose and protect the most vulnerable.

Even if we were to share the same diagnosis, the way in which our bodies respond both to a particular medical condition and its treatment will be highly personal.

Yet, despite this, many healthcare providers – whether state-run or commercial organisations, such as pharmaceutical companies or healthcare insurers – often remain distant in their interactions with their ‘customers’; whilst other categories and the rest of society move towards more individualised, transparent, and on-demand services.

It’s a response that the healthcare industry can no longer afford to continue making. We’ve seen some of this change in the last couple of months as the crisis has required greater openness and a burgeoning embrace of technology, but there is much more that could be achieved.

The Industry is at a Crossroads

With ever-more highly targeted medicines being developed for smaller patient cohorts; newer and more precise diagnostic tools; more patient-focused legislation; and the continued education of patients themselves, healthcare industry’s approach to personalisation will go from being a key contributor of maintaining this growth to unlocking further value in the future.

And, it seems to be now or never.

Many analysts recognising this current moment as an important juncture for the industry to “stop just consulting patients, and become the high-calibre collaborators, patient-centric, and transformative pharma industry, we all know we’re capable of being”.

Big Data and Personalised Medicine

A lot of progress has already been made and the healthcare industry has changed dramatically in the last decade: improving genomics and diagnostics; the rise of wearables; Big Data; virtual consultations; artificial intelligence; and an ongoing shift to preventative medicine and early diagnosis as the wellbeing market continues to grow.

The fundamental paradigm of healthcare provision for individuals is now one of prevention and personalised treatment.

And, at the heart of this change, is data.

With the Healthcare data sector predicted to grow exponentially over the next few years at annual rates approaching 40%,[1] the availability of health data will be an increasing factor in how healthcare is provided in the future – electronic Health Records; monitoring; chronic condition monitoring; more personalised diagnostics; expedited R&D; value-based assessments; and self-management are all beneficiaries of this increase in availability in data.

But perhaps the most interesting direction of travel has been the concept of ‘personalised medicine’.

Combining innovation in technology and the demand for more personalised treatment pathways with positive outcomes, precision medicine is the goal of providing individuals with health support which leads to optimised benefits.

Moving away from the traditional ‘one size fits all’ model and the ‘blockbuster’ era in medicine development, personalised medicine seeks to better manage patients’ health and target therapies to achieve the best outcomes in the management of a patient’s disease or predisposition to disease[2].

Personalisation in the Consumer World

Of course, personalisation isn’t something unique to healthcare.

As today’s overload of information through social media and mobile grows, the demands for personalised information, services and products has increased across every sector.

The power of personalisation in consumer sectors are is huge:

  • 91% of consumers more likely to engage with brands providing personalised recommendations[3]
  • 72% of consumers in 2019 only engage with information that is customized to their interests[4]
  • 90% of consumers are willing to share behavioural data if it leads to personalised experiences[5]

Financial Services, Consumer Goods, Travel and Tourism, Professional Services – in almost every sector, personalising goods and services to the individual or end user has been enabled by the innovations in technology and data, and is centre stage in terms of customer demands. And, in each of these sectors, consumer brands have taken huge strides in personalising how they engage with their customers.

Utilising the myriad channels now available – from search engines to mobile, email to social media – marketeers have harnessed the platforms and their data to create highly targeted, context driven communication with their target audiences.

The enabler has been data – data which permits an understanding of behaviours across search engines, social media, mobile, and web.

It’s no longer ‘one size fits all’: personalised marketing supports personalised services. Through insights, targeting, and the contextualisation of content, brands have created a value exchange, understanding their audiences and meeting needs.

Better Personalisation = Better Engagement

These consumer brands can now identify highly specific search terms being used by their target audience; how those search terms ‘convert’ to purchase or fulfilment; geographic and demographic variations; the authority of certain content in influencing customers; and the depth of impact of engagement of web sites, blog posts, ‘Likes’ and shares.

The list is long and lengthening continually as search engines and analytics tools develop.

Consumer marketing is precise, and the engagement is richer as a consequence.

And the results have been impressive: personalisation reduces customer acquisition costs by up to 50%, lifting revenues up to 15%, and optimises marketing spend efficiency by up to 30%.[6]

However, the question which all of this leads to is the following: as state or commercial healthcare providers seek to deliver more personalised healthcare services, shouldn’t this be supported by more personalised healthcare communications?

A Prescription for Personalisation: What Can Healthcare Communications Learn from the Consumer World?

In much the same way that medications won’t work in an identical way for different people, healthcare services simply can’t replicate exactly what traditional consumer business do and expect the same results. Healthcare services are, clearly, very different from purchasing car insurance, buying new trainers, or opening a bank account.

Firstly, the ethical, societal, and regulatory context is much more complex, and the behaviours of stakeholders have different motivations.

Secondly, the legal framework is more restrictive than the consumer world, too. Direct to consumer advertising is prohibited; promotion of prescription medicines is significantly limited; fair balance in product claims is a necessity; and the oversight of compliance is strong, with multiple bodies from the FDA in the United States to the APBI in the United Kingdom.

Added to this national legislation such as GDPR and Data Protection acts in the UK and similar across the globe, provide for a landscape in healthcare which can be daunting when considering the personalisation of communications.

So How Can Healthcare Communications Become More Personalised?

It’s Healthcare as a whole is a fundamentally innovative discipline. From Hippocrates, through Pasteur and ongoing incredible innovations such as the Heartlander project from the Carnegie Mellon University, and the predictive genomics analysis used in the effective diagnosis and treatment of rare disease by start-ups such as RDMD, healthcare has harnessed technology to drive improvement. The importance of data in clinical trials, scientific research and analysis to fuel innovation is well established. Yet this data driven focus hasn’t fully translated to healthcare communications.

Learning from the consumer world affords us a huge opportunity to reach the right people, with the right information, at the right time, and – whilst the nature of the content we present will differ from consumer brands – the value of putting valuable information into the hands of those who need it most remains the same.

Social Media Targeting

Utilising available technology and expertise, there is an opportunity to understand behaviours and profiles across search engines, web, social media, and mobile to find, inform, and educate individuals specific to their profile. For example, social media platforms make available anonymised data as to interests, age, gender, likes/dislikes, content engaged with, influence, etc.

The final point is critical: influencers play a crucial role in online decisions are made. More than 90% of social media users have claimed they are more likely to commit to a service or purchase based on the recommendation of a ‘trusted source’ than on the information provided by the brand itself[7].

Influencers and Thought Leaders

In healthcare, significant resources are invested in consulting with leading healthcare practitioners, recognised as ‘thought leaders’ with the power to educate colleagues in latest treatments and practice.

Online is no different – the thought leaders (substitute for ‘influencers’ in consumer parlance) are highly influential in shaping consumer and professional behaviours; their opinions resonate, and they are unrestricted by the time restrictions of peer review, editorial approval, and congress timelines.

Data and Analytics

If we consider the combined power of Adwords (PPC) and Search Engine Optimisation alone, there is an opportunity to be incredibly precise in how we ensure we present relevant healthcare content to those who need it most.

This could be in the realm of rare disease and patient identification, it could be to assist in early diagnosis in oncology, supporting specialist physicians in latest guidelines or treatments or simply in facilitating connections with like-minded professionals for peer to peer learning which are so in demand.

Improving Communications, Improving Lives

With 91% of the public now using social media to support their health decision-making[8] and millennial healthcare professionals listing online peer-to-peer channels as their most valuable ongoing learning source[9], the role of digital in healthcare is critical and will become more so as technology evolves.

Just as consumer markets have shifted from the high street to the screen, healthcare has – and will continue – to do the same.

Yes, the intent might be different and the behaviours more complex, but the challenge remains the same: in today’s world of information overload, brands need to find ways to engage effectively with their audiences. The technology and techniques exist to become much more precise in how we support individuals in their wellbeing, educate physicians and bring huge benefits to early diagnosis, better disease management, professional education and ultimately access to better healthcare for all.

A cursory glance at almost any pharmaceutical company website will include the mission of “improving lives”. PPC, SEO, social media analytics, and the various other aspects of digital marketing won’t drive out better medicines or access to healthcare services, but can ensure we speak to the right people about the right subject.

For an industry that has delivered so consistently on innovation, this feels less like an opportunity and more of an obligation.

COVID-19 has changed many views of what healthcare provisions should mean and the roles industry and governments need to play. Technology has become central to that. Personalised and precision medicine deserve personalised and precise communications.

And healthcare needs to take it personally.

Speak to one of our healthcare strategists