In the old days – and by that, I mean five years ago – the healthcare communications industry typically took a one-way approach to engaging with patients.  We would solicit patients’ feedback, either through first- or second-hand research, use the insights to inform our strategy and then do what we do best –introduce a creative and compelling campaign that enhances the brand-patient relationship.

Times have changed, and a brand’s relationship with its patients has evolved from “brand informer” to “brand partner.”  Specifically, online patient evangelists have re-calibrated the balance of power in DTC communications and influence.  With the ability to serve as first-party brand evangelists via social media, today’s online patient serves as authentic, credible and go-to resources for health information for others.  Prospective patients crave honest and authentic counsel and, while the clinician’s opinion will always be of value, there is no substitute for heartfelt posts from someone with whom you can personally indentify, and who is traveling the same health journey as you.

And, to a brand, the interaction between an established advocate and a patient is invaluable.  So much so, that it may even be – gasp – more influential than the requisite Today Show segment. 

There is an art to authentic patient engagement on behalf of a brand, which has continued to evolve again and again over the past few years.  A few things to keep in mind to avoid any missteps:

  • Have a Plan.  It sounds obvious, but be sure that partnering with online patient influencers fits into your larger marketing mix.  Be able to answer two very simple questions: “How can I partner with influencers to advance the brand’s reputation, while also providing added value to the individual?” and “How can I sustain a long-standing relationship with this individual?”

  • Do your Research.  One of the best aspects about social media is that it leaves clues to what people think and feel.  Once you have identified potential online patient partners for the brand, do thorough research into what they post about; whether they have written about your brand in the past; whether they are positive or negative about their condition; and how influential they are within the patient community.  The answers here will greatly inform whether you want to engage with the influencer or not.

  • Assess Your Tolerance.  Every company and brand team has a different threshold and tolerance when it comes to content control.  Some can comfortably accept that an online influencer may occasionally post something less-than-positive depending on the circumstances; others couldn’t run faster away from the risk a situation like this may pose.  The key is to map out, understand and accept the relative opportunities and risks before engaging with target influences who will always speak with an authentic voice.

There is no question that the health communications profession has been democratized significantly, and the patient has a stronger and more valued voice than ever before.  If relevance is there, partnering with a patient or patient group may be an effective way to enhance your communications strategy, so long as everyone – the brand, the influencer and the agency – are all clear on their roles, responsibilities and obligations, and understand the respective risks and benefits.

When managed correctly, you may have a hand in forging a lasting connection that, ultimately, results in better health for those in need.


Linda Bernstein Jasper is
 VP of Healthcare Practice at Coyne PR