Despite the fact that there are more ways than ever to target and reach audiences, marketers face numerous challenges. 

And perhaps few face the number of challenges that confront healthcare marketers.

Here are seven of the biggest that this group must contend with.

1. Digital underinvestment

By some estimates, healthcare spending in the US is close to 20% of GDP, but healthcare marketers aren't funneling much of their marketing dollars into digital. 

According to Deloitte Consulting, healthcare and pharma marketers spent just $1.4bn on digital ads, a figure that lags marketers in other industries.

One of the consequences of this digital underinvestment is that this has created opportunities for third parties to become the go-to resources for consumers and physicians looking for healthcare information online.

This is despite the fact that, in many cases, healthcare marketers' organizations have valuable, proprietary data and content.

2. Measurement & metrics

While measurement is top-of-mind for most marketers, it hasn't been as important in healthcare because of the role marketing has played historically in healthcare organizations.

That's changing, and many organizations have adopted a number of sensible growth and brand-related metrics.

But adoption of metrics related to stakeholder engagement and marketing communications, including patient satisfaction and paid media, are still undervalued, which can make it more difficult for healthcare marketers to "connect the dots."

3. Market structure

Healthcare is not a typical market. In the US, few consumers pay directly for care and drugs; instead, third parties like insurers pay the bills and control where, when and how consumers access the healthcare system.

For marketers, this presents a number of challenges. One of the biggest: even if you can persuade a consumer that your hospital provides the highest quality of care or that your drug is the most effective, the consumer might not be able to access your product or service.

So in many cases, healthcare marketers find themselves playing a game of triangulation involving consumers and care providers, like hospital systems and physicians.

For obvious reasons, this makes developing an effective marketing strategy a more complicated proposition.

4. The trust gap

The healthcare industry, and pharma in particular, doesn't have the best reputation thanks in part to controversies over subjects like drug pricing.

That has created a trust gap in which consumers as well as physicians are less likely to trust ads and information that come from healthcare marketers.

To rectify this, healthcare marketers will need to become more adroit at storytelling.

Unfortunately, as Alexandra von Plato, group president of North America for Publicis Healthcare Communications Group, has observed, "We neglect the origin story. Instead we run these dumb ads," referring to the ubiquitous and oft-parodied television ads promoting prescription drugs.

5. Lawmakers

Those "dumb ads" haven't made fans of physicians, and the aforementioned drug pricing controversy has made pharma companies Enemy #1 for some lawmakers in the US.

That could soon have a dramatic impact on healthcare marketers as lawmakers consider reigning in how healthcare marketers promote their wares to professionals and the public.

Given how reliant pharma marketers in particular have become on television ads, and how underinvested they are in digital, greater restrictions on advertising could make life very difficult.

6. HIPAA

Consumer adoption of wearables is growing but healthcare marketers are struggling to take advantage of wearable opportunities.

There are a number of reasons for this, but one might be HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which regulates the use of Protected Health Information (PHI).

Healthcare organizations regulated by HIPAA must receive consent from patients before their PHI is used for marketing purposes, and there are many grey areas, particularly as far as innovative technologies such as wearables are concerned.

That means healthcare marketers realistically don't have the same flexibility as marketers in other industries that aren't subject to HIPAA.

7. Data

Out of necessity, healthcare organizations may be adept at dealing with issues related to data security.

However, as a recent Econsultancy and Ogilvy CommonHealth report - Organizing Healthcare Marketing in the Digital Age - discovered, a majority are unprepared to deal with emerging data sources or to collect high volumes of data at speed.

Furthermore, a surprising large number of organizations (44%) aren't even prepared to use their CRM data in marketing campaigns.

Because effective collection and use of data is increasingly integral to successful digital marketing, healthcare marketers' capabilities around data will need to improve.

Patricio Robles

Published 26 May, 2016 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (1)

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Heather Bones, Admin at Imperial College

Interesting article. It's no wonder though the healthcare industry is lagging behind other industries on digital advertising. The industry, in many countries, has to follow strict ethical guidelines on what and how they can advertise. As pointed out in the article, the market structure also makes it difficult to pitch the right kind of advertising because the general public does not always have the final say on the purchasing of the products. Instead, some healthcare marketers see no point in spending too much on general advertising and would rather network with the real decision makers when it comes to purchasing. One of the biggest challenges is that the internet has turned everyone into an armchair expert - people think that if they read something about a healthcare product on some website, they now know everything. Healthcare marketer therefore need to up their game and target their audiences effectively in order to earn public trust and become the credible source of information on health products.

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