Date posted: 16 November 2017
Physicians use a variety of online sources to access information relevant to clinical practice. But how do they find this information? Which sources do they use? And why?
In this summary post, we explore the research findings of Patrick Mikalef, lead author of Online information search behaviour of physicians and consider what healthcare marketers can do to better reach and engage physicians online.
As healthcare marketers, we know doctors are increasingly using online information sources to complement their medical practice. However, little is known regarding the sources themselves and their ability to affect clinical practice. These are important considerations for our digital marketing efforts and are the focus of this article.
What we already know about physician search behaviour
Their online information needs can be grouped into categories:
- Professional development
- Patient care
- Identifying patient information
- Establishing guidelines for patient care
- Resolving difficult and rare cases
And the top sources of this information?
- Search engines
- Scientific journals
- Medical databases
In addition to the above, there appears to be growing use of social media by medical professionals for knowledge expansion, which we’ll consider in more detail later in the post.
What does this mean for healthcare marketers?
Firstly, knowing what our customers are looking for online, how they search for it and where they find it is crucial to creating and distributing content. Secondly, if we don’t identify and address audiences’ information needs, why should they pay any attention to it?
Broadly, the content categories listed above provide an excellent framework for healthcare marketers as they develop communications programmes. Specifically, content creators and advertisers can use these insights to develop and distribute information that’s valuable to target audiences.
What we want to find out
In their study, Patrick and his colleagues wanted to address the following questions:
- How do authoritative and non-authoritative online information sources fulfil the diverse information needs of medical doctors?
- How does the fulfilment of these information requirements impact self-perceived medical practice competence?
Definitions. Authoritative information sources are regulated by the scientific community so that they adhere to specific standards and regulations, and are regularly revised so that they are up to date. In non-authoritative information sources there is no exercising or accepted community responsible for checking the trustworthiness and reliability of the information provided.
What did they find?
No surprise | using authoritative sources has a positive and significant association with the fulfilment of all types of medical information needs, with a perceived positive impact on patient care, knowledge development and research activities.
Conversely, non-authoritative sources are not found to have any significant impact on fulfilment of doctors’ medical information needs, or impact on patient care, knowledge development and research activities.
Surprise | doctors still use non-authoritative sources. A lot!
What does this mean for healthcare marketers?
For healthcare marketers this research, combined with what we already know, raises some interesting questions, which Patrick and I have attempted to address here:
Q | How can healthcare marketers increase the credibility of their sites and content?
A | We know that high authority sources are perceived to positively impact patient care, knowledge development and research activities. As such, we recommend industry content creators refer to the earlier definition of ‘authoritative’ when creating and sharing content online.
Q | Why are doctors using non-authoritative sources, when they seem to be negatively associated with their impact on patient care, knowledge development and research activities?
A | There is clearly a tendency for health professionals to use community-built content, such as Wikis, YouTube and social media. Why? Because they’re easy places to find, access and consume healthcare information. This would explain why IMS ranks Wikipedia as the preferred source of healthcare information for doctors. Ultimately it’s down to convenience.
For healthcare marketers, this shows that if you create sources that are easy to find, access and consume content from then you’re likely to gain some traction.
Q | When is a physician likely to use an authoritative and non-authoritative site?
A | Patrick’s research categorised physician information needs into: patient care, knowledge development and research activities.
Within this context, it’s easy to see how doctors would consider non-authoritative sites, such as social media and Wikis, as good sources of information for high-level knowledge development: they’re usually free, host rich, multimedia content and are easy to find and navigate. However, they’re unlikely to trusted as primary sources for decisions related to patient care. I hope!
Conversely, high-authority sites are typically gated, tough to navigate and present information in long-form editorial. As a result, the user experience can be laborious and time consuming. However, they are trusted for making informed clinical decisions.
What now for healthcare marketers?
You want your sites and content to have a positive impact on clinical practice. Based on Patrick’s and others’ research, we recommend a combined approach, taking the best elements of authoritative and non-authoritative sources for maximum impact.
Combining the best bits
As Patrick so eloquently puts it in his paper, the credibility of the source regulates the degree of trust between the provider and the information consumer, which in sequence dictates whether, and how, the information is used. As such, in professional settings where information credibility is an important factor of actual information usage, establishing a position of a trustworthy information provider is critical.