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Healthcare Marketing Disruptions: Why Patients Rule Now

Healthcare marketing used to be so simple, or at least, predictable. Why? Humans will always get sick, and so the demand for products and services is always there. All healthcare marketers had to figure out was how to present options to meet that demand.

Simple. Right?

For pharmaceutical companies, it was as predictable as identifying a disease or condition which had not been “fixed” yet. The company would then invest a few millions dollars on research, development and testing of the drug and, in a no time – Okay, maybe a few years – something like clavulanate potassium and other compounds could be formulated into a blockbuster drug like Augmentin™.


Of course, the marketing team had to create a brand identity for these often polysyllabic, scientific-sounding compounds. This involved focus groups of potential patients and physicians being convened and, in no time at all, nonsensical names for these products would be developed, researched, graphics created, and medical and consumer messaging hammered out.

Then, like clockwork, the pharmaceutical sales reps could then be dispatched to physician offices around the world. They delivered boxes of samples, cheap specialty tchotchkes with the product name prominently emblazoned on the side, and a round-trip ticket for the doctor to someplace tropical to attend a special “conference” on the product. Customarily, there would be an honorarium given to the physician in return for his/her attendance at these conferences.

Plus, pharmaceutical companies discovered direct-to-consumer advertising and found this could drive patients to request their new miracle drug.

“Ask your doctor if the little purple pill is right for you!”


Of course, this drove doctors crazy. However, it moved a LOT of merchandise.

Marketing medical treatment was also predictable. Hospitals, specialty clinics, and other facilities had tried and true paths to success in marketing. Selling this service to sick patients was streamlined by the LACK of any caveat emptor. There was almost no news coverage about health or medicine since cable news and the 24/7 news cycle did not exist.

Patients just assumed everyone in the healthcare ecosystem was there to help them. Asking for second opinions was rare. Plus, questioning efficacy of treatment or pharmaceutical regimens were simply not done.

All this changed on August 21, 1996.


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The Acronym That Changed Everything

When President Bill Clinton signed the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act into law in 1996, nobody – including doctors, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, patients and especially marketing and advertising practitioners – had any idea how this law would fundamentally change the landscape of healthcare marketing. “HIPAA,” as this law came to be known, was created to “improve the portability and accountability of health insurance coverage” for employees between jobs, according to this journal.

“Other objectives of the Act were to combat waste, fraud and abuse in health insurance and healthcare delivery. The Act also contained passages to promote the use of medical savings accounts by introducing tax breaks, provides coverage for employees with pre-existing medical conditions and simplifies the administration of health insurance.” At its core, HIPAA was a patient privacy law.

HIPAA changed the balance of power in healthcare and patients never looked back.


Interestingly, HIPAA was probably the first healthcare law that united almost every player involved in the delivery of healthcare. Every physician, medical technician, nurse, pharmaceutical company, hospital and clinic – EVERYONE in this massive, multi-billion-dollar system of healthcare delivery – hated it! The paperwork seemed endless, the penalties for mistakes were severe, and, perhaps most of all, the regulations struck at the heart of the sense of omnipotence that professionals in the healthcare industry felt they had earned.

Despite the number of letters in this acronym HIPAA became one of those profane, four-letter words!

In retrospect, it is obvious that HIPAA was a turning-point in healthcare marketing. It was the first time that patients took control of their own medical data and things would never be the same for everyone involved.

About 25 years later, other factors conspired to make healthcare marketing even more complicated. For marketers, landmines seem to be everywhere!

Pre-Pandemic Disruptions


Sometime between the passage of HIPAA and the COVID pandemic, patients became emboldened about their privacy and options for medical treatment. Even before the pandemic crippled the healthcare system, consumers were infuriated by invasions of their online privacy. Third party data-harvesting from search engines, who then sold this data to marketers to inform advertising messaging and ad placement, has led to regulatory involvement and social media mea culpas for almost every element of the healthcare industry.


Patients have become fed-up with this breach of their privacy, and, like Peter Finch’s character in the movie “Network,” they’re not going to take it anymore.

How about an example? Those highly effective and ubiquitous “cookies” that follow us everywhere we go on the internet are crumbling before our very eyes. Search behemoth Google announced in January 2020 that it would eliminate third-party cookies from its browser “Chrome” by 2022. The company promised to use those two years to come up with a more private alternative that users and advertisers (and Google) would be happy with.

Then COVID hit, and the world of healthcare marketing was admitted to the ICU. Following this “perfect storm” of the pandemic, with staff shortages, physician and nursing burnout, facilities in critical condition and patient panic about getting too close to someone who might be infected, there are at least three disruptions that every healthcare marketer should be aware of. They are the new normal.

TV or Not TV


Many healthcare marketing experts, including Andrea Palmer of Publicis Health Media, have noted that 2021 was “a year of explosive growth and incredible upheaval in health. There is no sugar-coating this: We are living and working in a state of perennial disruption. Marketers, consumers and advertisers are all trying to adjust to a series of rapid shifts.”

One of those shifts is to move away from network television for promoting medical products and services.

In her article published here, Palmer noted, “For decades, marketers and advertisers counted on consumers’ loyalty to networks for their viewing habits, informing massive buys across linear television. No more! As platforms and their associated production houses proliferate, consumers are abandoning platform-affinities to instead chase content, subscribing and unsubscribing at will.”

For healthcare marketers, this means that content is the once and future king. It must be truthful and (equally important) compelling. Storytelling, with appropriate cultural sensitivity in both images and copy are critical to the success of this content marketing strategy.

“Whereas marketers once spoke of screens, we now consider content — and the platforms where that content lives — as dominant. This is a meaningful shift, particularly in health, where people are seeking out content at increasing rates. It’s also an opportunity for health marketers to lead rather than follow.”

TikTok Docs Will See You Now


The explosion of social media influencers, who happen to be physicians, is part and parcel of this trend toward content marketing in healthcare. Some of these physicians are featured on social platforms such as TikTok, where they enjoy millions of followers and dispense medical knowledge in rapid-fire fashion.

Palmer notes, “Influential online docs such Doctor Mike, who has racked up almost a million followers on TikTok covering topics from the risks of sunburn to autistic spectrum disorders and Dr. Leslie, who responds to follower questions on the COVID-vaccine, breast cancer symptoms and so called ‘detox diets,’ have leveraged these new platforms to reach far beyond their practice walls.”

CNN’s chief medical reporter, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a practicing neurosurgeon from Atlanta, is featured on all of the news network’s social media and can be seen almost every night commenting on trending healthcare topics. With his reporting on the COVID pandemic, he has become a trusted source for medical information.

Much like those wise and warm (but fictional) doctors who came into our home via TV every night during the 60s and 70s, each of these celebrity physicians has learned to make very complicated information understandable and non-threatening to viewers. This is a valuable lesson for those involved in creating compelling healthcare marketing. The KISS approach rules.

A Healthy Dose of Media Diversity is Needed


There’s nothing like a global epidemic to highlight inequities. As Palmer notes, “The COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on disparities in our healthcare system, with far-reaching inequity leading to unequal access to care, treatment, information and education.”

That information disparity can be partially attributed to a lack of support for minority media by healthcare marketers. There is no doubt that this must change, if for no other reason than its REALLY BAD BUSINESS.

As she notes, “Diverse populations are growing: Within 25 years, the Census Bureau projects non-Hispanic whites will account for less than half the U.S. population and the Pew Research Center found that in 2018, 48% of U.S. millennials were nonwhite.

“The buying power of minority groups in the U.S cannot be denied, totaling $4.2 trillion in 2020 and forecast to be $5.2 trillion in 2023. Given the inequities inherent in healthcare, one of the best ways to close gaps is to get information directly to the underserved audience.” This means that increasing the budgets for paid and earned media among minority media should be a priority. As for the messaging for these media, they must be carefully crafted to be culturally sensitive.”

Live Long and Prosper


Healthcare marketing is not sick, it’s just changing, and many believe this change is for the better. As with any marketing endeavor, relentless (non-third party) consumer research, measurable goals and objectives, leveraging digital technology and brilliant storytelling will result in healthy results. However, make no mistake. The patient is in charge now. Forgetting this could be dangerous for your company’s health.


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Art Young
Experienced Writer with a demonstrated history of working in the marketing and advertising industry. Skilled in Digital Strategy, Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Crisis Communications, Journalism, and Media Relations. Strong arts and design professional with a B.A. focused in Political Science from The University of Texas at Austin.

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