Imagine you’ve just been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, like lupus or multiple sclerosis. Or maybe you just found out your parent has a heart condition that requires complex surgery. You may be feeling overwhelmed by both the diagnosis and the vast amount of information out there about your or your loved one’s prognosis and treatment options. Where do you turn for insight, advice, and support?
Your doctor is one obvious resource, but more and more patients experiencing a health crisis, serious illness, or concerning or confusing symptoms are turning to online patient communities for help. These communities – made up of people going through the same health experiences – can offer anxious new members or visitors education, resources, and firsthand accounts in a format that helps them feel understood, supported, and connected in their new journey. Information and insights are conveyed in a conversational way rather than delivered in long, jargon-laden medical papers or websites. People join these communities to learn about what they’re facing and forge bonds with people who know what they are going through.
Being present in these communities or starting an online patient community that bears your health system brand can be a highly effective marketing strategy. Participation in these communities allows you to connect with patients, provide information, and guide them toward treatment and wellness resources offered by your hospital or health system. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that people do not join these communities to be barraged by promotional materials and blatant marketing tactics. It is important that healthcare marketers find ways to add value to these groups, offering trustworthy, expert information and connections with the intent of improving their quality of life.
This blog post will help you understand the value and purpose of online patient communities and guide you in how to be active in these communities in a way that builds brand awareness and trust.
3 WAYS YOUR PRESENCE IN ONLINE COMMUNITIES CAN HELP AND ENGAGE PATIENTS
Online communities have the potential to improve a person’s quality of life and mental health. These forums can spread important information, empower people to ask their healthcare teams critical questions and research new treatment options, promote healthy lifestyle choices, and offer a clear look at patients’ needs and pain points for healthcare professionals.
Establishing online patient communities through your healthcare system or getting involved in existing ones like Inspire, PatientsLikeMe, HealthBoards, and DailyStrength can improve your marketing outcomes and your patient outcomes in the following ways:
- Offering Support: People dealing with their own illnesses or health crises – or facing them in their families – often feel anxious, overwhelmed, frustrated, and isolated. Online patient communities give them a place to go where they can share their experiences, get advice and encouragement from others who really understand what they are going through, and find strength, hope, and even humor in otherwise stressful situations. As a healthcare marketer, you must tread carefully here, avoiding self-promotion in favor of empathetic support for patients. Start – or engage in – conversations that focus first on patients’ needs and problems and what solutions or support you can offer to improve their situation. Keep language understanding, emotional, and nonjudgmental versus overtly clinical or promotional.
- Serving as a Trusted Source of Information: People in online patient communities want to learn more about their conditions and treatment options and want to be addressed in an understandable and non-pushy way. They want to be educated and informed, not influenced. You likely have experts on your staff who can share essential insights on lifestyle changes and treatments that can help people with these conditions live healthier, more fulfilling lives and offer hope for the future by sharing exciting new research, medication options, noninvasive treatments, and more.
- Empowering Patients: When people feel more in control of their health and wellness, they are more likely to make healthy lifestyle choices, follow their treatment plans, keep up with appointments, more effectively communicate with their care team, and take a more active role in managing their health overall. These behaviors improve patient outcomes, and when people feel empowered, respected, and understood – they build stronger, loyal relationships with your providers and your health system.
By giving patients the information and resources they need, when they need it; showing empathy and understanding for what they’re going through; and putting them in the driver’s seat with regard to their treatment, health management, or rehabilitation, you build trust and loyalty. These patients are more likely to turn to your health system for the needs they have now – and for the needs they and their families will have in the future.
Additionally, when you engage with people seeking information and support in these online communities, you have access to valuable information that can help your health system modify or introduce services and specialties that better meet the needs of people with these specific conditions. If your hospital or health system offers – and effectively markets – the treatments, therapies, wellness resources, or support services these patients are looking for, they will be more likely to come to you for care.
WHAT ARE THE TYPES OF ONLINE PATIENT COMMUNITIES?
There are many types of patient communities out there, and which ones you choose to establish or participate in may come down to your program strengths and areas of expertise. Most healthcare systems could offer education, expert insights, and resources to patients in a variety of these forums, but if your system is a center of excellence for multiple sclerosis care, if you have an award-winning breast cancer program, or if you’re performing heart procedures not found elsewhere in the region, start there – with those areas where you have a lot to offer. Here are some of the most common patient communities you’ll find online:
- Long-Term Treatment Support Communities: For people facing lifelong conditions like Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cystic fibrosis, and Crohn’s disease, participation in these groups helps them deal with continuous care challenges. In addition to finding support from others living with the same issues, group members benefit from healthcare insights that could help them have more productive conversations with their doctors, stick to the treatments they need to maintain their best possible quality of life, and find out about promising new medications, procedures, or therapies.
- Point-of-Need Communities: These communities attract patients facing cancer diagnoses and treatments, complex surgeries, and other immediate health experiences. People in these situations need specific information, insights from people who have walked in their shoes, and sympathy – which they may have a hard time finding elsewhere. In these communities, healthcare marketers should consider sharing patient testimonials or offering Q&As with real patients; offering step-by-step advice and supportive resources for each part of a patient’s surgical, chemotherapy, or other treatment journey; and ensuring that community conversations include the most accurate and up-to-date information available about the condition or treatment discussed.
- Long-Diagnosis Disease Communities: Delayed diagnoses can negatively affect patient outcomes, make conditions more difficult to manage, and lead to frustrating experiences that spark patients’ distrust of the medical profession. These communities can help patients recognize symptoms of conditions earlier and offer advice for driving informed conversations with their care team. Providing educational resources that can be used by both patients and their providers, facilitating conversations between those patients with suspicious symptoms and those already diagnosed with a condition, and encouraging patients to reach out to experts with their concerns versus brushing their symptoms off as inconsequential are all important steps toward building trust and engagement.
TIPS FOR ESTABLISHING ONLINE PATIENT COMMUNITIES
If you’ve decided to build your own branded online patient community instead of joining some existing ones, you’ll need to plan exactly what you want your communities to achieve, choose the best platform for your audiences, and ensure that you will have both caregiver and expert engagement as well as people to manage and moderate user posts. Below, you’ll find some tips for getting started.
- Define Your Purpose and Goals: What purpose do you want your community to serve? Do you want to establish your health system as a thought leader in managing chronic diseases? Do you want, for example, to offer a space to dispel misconceptions and stigma for cancer patients and route them toward your specialized cancer care services?
- Choose the Right Platform: If the audiences you are trying to reach are frequent users of Facebook, LinkedIn, Reddit, or other popular social engagement sites, you can certainly start there. But these platforms have some limitations when it comes to creating, hosting, and managing communities. You may want to explore what community-building platforms are out there that would let you customize your users’ experience and the features that would help them best engage with your healthcare brand.
- Make Your Case for Engagement – and Stick To It: If you are promising regular expert insights, patient testimonials, and research and treatment updates within a condition-specific community, make sure you can deliver. Get the people you need to contribute to this community on board, ensure they have backups, and encourage regular engagement.
- Moderate and Engage With Your Community: You need community managers to ensure that your branded community isn’t sharing misinformation – and to respond to false or flawed claims – as well as have a mechanism for users to report suspicious or harmful content right away. In addition to welcoming a regular influx of new members, you may also want to find ways to highlight long-term members who frequently share information that elevates the experience of other community members and potentially pushes them toward better outcomes. Think about bestowing a “trusted user” status. These helpful members may also be a valuable resource for helping you determine what new content or engagement strategies would most benefit the group. Regular engagement with your whole community is also necessary to build relationships, so keep a close eye on conversations and look for any opportunity to answer questions, help people progress to a next step, or share updates.