Marketing for the Future of Virtual Medicine

By Stephen Marshman

Stephen Marshman

Healthcare players must recognise consumer shifts and position themselves to optimise their marketing communication models within the virtual healthcare paradigm. 

Long before the global pandemic accelerated significant changes in our everyday lives, populations were already switching to consumption models that were increasingly available at home and on demand. You need to shop? You have Amazon. You need to eat? Then Just Eat. How about a movie? Netflix has thousands. For so many needs, you don’t even have to leave your armchair. And even when you do, perhaps to get your daily workout, companies like Peloton have made exercising another facet of our lives that we can experience from home, whenever we choose. But what about our requirements in the areas of health and medicine? 

As with the aforementioned examples, health and medicine had virtual models that existed “pre-pandemic”. You can find examples of medical professionals providing consultations by telephone back in the middle of the twentieth century and from the early 2000s, pioneering Med Techs such as TelaDoc and Dr On Demand have used the power of the Internet to provide bundled services. Today these services combine consultation, diagnoses and therapy with on-line health care plans and close links to retailers and pharmacies. 

So virtual medicine is not new but as we have seen with so many aspects of our lives over the last year, the impact of the pandemic has triggered a huge increase in the rise of virtual models. What does this mean from a marketing perspective? Few expect that following the global roll-out of vaccines there will be a sharp decline in the proliferation of virtual and remote medical and healthcare models. 

Indeed, as well as reacting to a paradigm that has shifted more rapidly than at any other time in history, those involved in the marketing of medicine should consider both the opportunities and pitfalls that exist within this new world order and how best to maximise the impact of their brands. 

Here are four key areas of consideration for those brands applying consumer marketing tactics in a healthcare setting:   

The Power of AI

While few are advocating a full switch to a virtual healthcare experience driven wholly via AI, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that this is a technology that will significantly enhance patient experience as part of a virtual delivery model. 

From shortening waiting times to the provision of initial diagnoses to instant second opinions, and as well as joining the dots between multiple healthcare systems, AI already has a growing role as a technology that most see as assisting Health Care Practitioners, rather than replacing them. 

What does this mean for marketing? Taking the example of waiting areas, not only does the virtual equivalent mean less time (and remove the risk of infection) it also presents an opportunity to provide consumers with useful and targeted communications, based on their initial online diagnosis. The possibilities extend well beyond this application; social listening can rapidly aggregate data on a product’s attributes or side-effects and provide valuable information about the strengths of your product relative to the competition. 

Pharmaceuticals can also engage AI for requirements as diverse as identifying Key Opinion Leaders or even the auto-generation of marketing copy (PM360, June 2020). 

Regulation and Security 

Whilst acknowledging that those in healthcare that are slow to recognise the inevitable shift toward virtual models are in danger of falling behind, there also has to be a note of caution around the approach companies are taking. Consumer and patient concerns over data privacy have never been higher. 

This is surely the principal factor driving the lag between the consumer’s increase in interest in telemedicine in the initial months of the pandemic (up to 76%) versus the actual usage level, which in the first few months rose to 46%, from a pre-Covid level of just 11% (McKinsey, May 2020). 

Consumers are buying the idea but in many cases need the theory to be proved first. Data security and how multiple systems can be effectively integrated are all high on the list of consumer concerns. Even in markets like the US, where direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising is permitted, regulations can be both strict, as you’d expect, and inconsistent, presenting extra challenges to those using telemedicine as a marketing channel. It's a great route to market and one that will only become more important. 

But getting it wrong as an early adopter—either through clunky user experience or, more critically, concerns over data leaks or cybersecurity—could set your brand back by years, rather than see you leading the field. 

The Consumer Experience 

If virtual healthcare models are executed well, they undoubtedly lead to a more integrated, seamless patient experience, and ultimately consumers will have greater trust in the brands delivering these services. With the potential to support every step of the process, from booking an appointment to billing, and with the flexibility offered through mobile accessibility, the digital healthcare journey looks to be more consistent and convenient than traditional models. 

It should mean more opportunities for marketeers, as well as an enhanced experience for consumers. Companies like Populus are already developing branded content platforms that can provide targeted marketing content to consumers, alongside telemedicine consultations. Brands are able to buy short video slots that will play while users wait to be connected to a healthcare professional. 

As more consumers switch to telemedicine models, the brands that thrive will be those that can connect most effectively within this digital environment. 

Taking a Holistic Approach 

Perhaps the single-most important benefit that telemedicine models can deliver is an improvement in the overall levels of long-term preventative care. With access to a wider range of healthcare providers and treatment efficiencies, combined with the real-time availability of data that previously existed in multiple systems, healthcare brands and providers can undoubtedly deliver a more joined-up model. 

Take the example of chronic, yet preventable, conditions, which often eat up as much as 75% of national healthcare spending (Modern Healthcare, October 2020). By providing more convenient access to follow-up care and a larger number of specialists, diagnoses can be quicker and more accurate with the resultant benefits of fewer hospital readmissions, reduced likelihood of complications, shorter in-patient stays and an overall fall in costs. Successful participants will be those that recognise the potential of this new model and market themselves effectively within it. 

There is still some way to go before telemedicine can be regarded as mainstream. Providers will need to adopt different ways of working and there needs to be a significant change in how data is shared, as well as a broadening of access to technology and how it is integrated. That said, the change is underway, and the global pandemic has accelerated it beyond what experts could have anticipated even a year ago. 


About Stephen Marshman  
Stephen has more than twenty years’ experience in branding and graphics, having begun his career with SGK in 1997. Today he works as a Business Development Director, focused on helping organisations of all sizes implement best practice processes for the development of packaging and branded content. With a proven track record of helping clients optimise their marketing supply chains, he has extensive experience of both the Consumer Packaged Goods and Life Sciences sectors.