Over 70% of US consumers researched a prescription medication or medical device online in the past year but pharma and medical device companies are missing out on opportunities to reach them as they navigate the “journey to care”.

That’s according to the Digital Patient Trends in Pharma 2019 report commissioned by Doctor.com, which found that consumers turn to pharmaceutical brand websites for information about medicines and devices nearly as often as they turn to their primary care physicians. Doctor.com says this represents a “major shift in patient preferences”, one that is creating challenges for consumers in the “last mile” of their journey:

“While consumers may feel empowered to research medication and treatment options independently, many have trouble making it past the discovery phase to find and procure the right treatment and care. In fact, respondents cite “finding the right doctor” as the #1 barrier to accessing treatment or medication — meaning patients struggle to locate qualified specialists to further educate, diagnose, and treat their healthcare conditions. While these patients are ready and willing to appoint a doctor, many will lose their way.”

According to Doctor.com, pharma and medical device firms have an opportunity to make themselves more useful to consumers here. While these companies spend billions every year on awareness and education, “consumers are now looking to pharma brands for the tools that will help them make more informed decisions about local providers.”

Specifically, 88% of the 1,300 US consumers polled indicated that they want pharma brand websites to connect them to doctors. Eight six percent said they would find it useful to be able to check and compare doctor ratings directly on brand websites, and 81% claimed they would be more likely to use or recommend sites with doctor directories.

Doctor.com found that over half of consumers would like the ability to schedule an appointment with a doctor directly through a directory, and nearly two-thirds of them would be likely to download additional content, such as guides and even coupons, after doing so.

Challenges and pitfalls abound

Despite the apparent desirability of pharma brand tools that help consumers connect with physicians, firms will have to address a number of challenges and pitfalls.

For example, if pharma and medical device companies are going to offer doctor directories, they must ensure that the information contained in those directories is accurate and kept up-to-date, something that can require significant effort. Additionally, providing robust scheduling functionality could be incredibly complex, as physicians use a variety of different scheduling systems.

Potentially even more problematic are the ethical and public perception issues for pharma and medical device companies if they become more involved in the journey to care. While large numbers of consumers are obtaining information about conditions and potential treatments from pharma and medical device brand websites, physicians are ultimately supposed to diagnose patients and, where treatment is necessary, determine a course of treatment that is medically appropriate for each individual patient.

Obviously, a treatment that a consumer discovers on her own might not be the treatment that a physician determines is most suitable.

If pharma brand websites become the source of a large number of referrals to physicians, it could stoke concerns about the potential for bias and conflict of interest in treatment planning at a time when, in the wake of the Purdue Pharma scandal, the industry has a lot of trust to regain. Of course, even if offering doctor directories isn’t always a good idea for pharma and medical device companies, the Digital Patient Trends in Pharma 2019 report highlights the fact that they should be looking at ways to engage patients beyond traditional marketing efforts.

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