How Healthcare Content Marketing Can Transform Patient Engagement

By Liz Alton on November 8, 2018

Patient engagement is a complicated thing. I've had doctors delighted with my lists of questions, the photocopies of NIH studies on experimental treatments that I bring to appointments, and my willingness to push the boundaries of various interventions in an endless search to deal with health issues. At the same time, I've also had doctors get annoyed at sources I've tapped into on healthcare topics where good information was thin. Yet they didn't have a better source for me to reference.

Luckily for patients navigating everything from a baby's first ear infection to chronic and terminal illnesses, healthcare content marketing is stepping up its game. With better information, patients are empowered in their own care, aware of innovations in the field, and proactive about seeking solutions that meet their healthcare needs. See how healthcare content marketing is positively shaping the patient experience.

Content and Patient Engagement: My Own Experience

As a content marketer, I'm always on the lookout for brands doing great work, and there's nothing more powerful than when effective outreach, education, and engagement touches your own life. It's one thing to talk about the power of content marketing. It's another to actually experience it.

First, some background: One of the reasons I decided to start freelancing was to have more flexibility around managing health challenges. Primarily, I have a series of autoimmune conditions, but I've had brushes with scarier things-I'm looking at you, Big C-and unexplained cases of annual pneumonia that took months to clear.

Recently, a very good doctor put the pieces together and began testing for immunodeficiency. It's what medical experts call a root cause: one of those mythical instances where they can pinpoint exactly what's causing all the seemingly unconnected things that are going wrong in someone's body.

Fast forward a few months, and I'm sitting in an office with one of the country's top immunologists. "Sorry to break the news," he said. "But you have a primary immunodeficiency. The good news is that it explains a lot of what you've gone through and that there are some treatments. But you're also at very high risk for deadly infections, cancers, and more. Unfortunately, we're out of time, but you come back in six weeks, and we'll talk some more." With that, I was ushered out the door to schedule my follow up.

Frankly, it takes a lot to phase me when it comes to my health these days. But I wandered back to the parking garage in a haze, staring at keywords I had frantically jotted down. Primary immunodeficiency? Common variable immunodeficiency disorder? Later, when I got my bearings, it was time to get to work.

I'm a strategist at heart, so step one was to research this condition until I was as close to an expert as possible. Then, I could get to fixing the situation as much as reality and modern medicine would allow. Clearly, I'm not alone in this, and that's one reason why healthcare content marketing has the potential to make such a profound difference.

Patient Empowerment Through Compassionate Content

Enter the Immune Deficiency Foundation and their brilliant set of resources. A robust section about immunodeficiencies outlines the basics of the underlying condition, as well as the particulars of many of the 200-plus rare diseases that fall into this class. They cover testing and treatments, as well as diagnostic criteria. Every question I could think of had a dedicated section.

What does this diagnosis mean for my fairly mobile lifestyle? Can I travel with the blood infusion treatments I need to take regularly, and how do I address vaccines when my body doesn't make titers? How on earth could I explain this to a casual acquaintance or family member who knows little about the subject? And how do you even navigate insurance when many of the treatments for these diseases start at thousands of dollars per week?

Thanks to a robust content effort, every question I mapped out in my preliminary strategy assessment was answered. Dozens more questions it hadn't occurred to me to ask were laid out for easy perusal and later reference.

Additional features on the site help patients find specialists and get specialized advice on insurance issues. Within a week of signing up, someone had contacted me to check if I needed help with anything. I was then connected to closed, moderated patient communities to share information and experiences. I even got a welcome packet with their best info in a bound book.

From a patient empowerment perspective, they nailed it. From a compassionate perspective, they serve as a model for others. And the marketer in me began to think about digging deeper and exploring how other areas of the healthcare field are helping patients better navigate their experiences.

Content Marketing for Healthcare: Where the Industry Stands

According to MarketingProfs, 83 percent of healthcare organizations engage in some form of content marketing. Yet the reality, of course, is that they range in helpfulness from your local chiropractor who blogs about his son's sporting events (Hi, Dr. H!) to robust efforts to help patients gain access to the latest research and treatments for specific conditions.

MarketingProfs reports that just one-third of healthcare organizations have a documented content strategy, and only 10 percent feel their organizations are very successful in measuring the effectiveness of their content. Particularly in the patient-focused content space, it's critical to have clear objectives and feedback loops. Otherwise, it's hard to track your impact and you risk wandering into places you'd rather not go.

One brand that's an absolute standout and synonymous with quality content is the Mayo Clinic. Their website includes educational resources for healthcare practitioners, reference materials for patients, and more. They've differentiated what they publish by ensuring that it's current, high quality, and accessible to the average user.

One area where they really shine is their Sharing blog, which profiles the experiences of patients and the medical community at Mayo. A recent post profiled a married couple, where the wife served as the living kidney donor for her husband. I recently watched a family go through this, and many people facing a transplant initially don't even know that living donation is an option. Another post explored the case study of a healthy marathon runner who was diagnosed with lung cancer, to reinforce the idea that anyone with lungs can get lung cancer-not just people who smoke or are in high risk occupations. Sharing these stories is powerful because it's an identifiable way to share information, and it lets people know they're not alone with their own issues.

The Challenges with Patient-Driven Healthcare Content

One reason many healthcare organizations are reserved in their content marketing is due to the high levels of regulation in the industry. HIPAA makes it difficult to share patient stories. High levels of accountability require endless rounds of review to make sure information isn't taken out of context-or becomes the basis of a future lawsuit. One naturopath I talked to about this subject stopped blogging out of fear of what she called "patients seeking Dr. Google" after someone used a blog she wrote about hormones as the basis of a DIY treatment plan that went very wrong.

patient empowerment care

Image attribution: Rainer Ridao

A medical marketing director of a hospital system who spoke with me about the same topic said, "My hands are tied. I have doctors treating patients with tough conditions and getting great results, but it might involve off-label usages of medication or getting to a level of detail that they just don't feel comfortable doing in writing, without knowing a patient's entire history and, frankly, that person's level of good decision-making."

She went on to say, "One of our integrative healthcare providers-an M.D.-wrote a fantastic blog post on dealing with the common cold. He looked at studies, recommended vitamins and even some promising products that he felt could be helpful. By the time we were done with legal reviews and clinical reviews, his first nine tips had been struck and they were willing to let us keep 'wash your hands.' Come on! At that point, you have to assess the best use of your resources in reaching patients or getting the word out."

But marketers who find a way to traverse regulatory hurdles are positioned to help patients in a meaningful way. Today's patients are hungry for information. A 2018 survey from Ipsos of over 20,000 adults found that, globally, search engines ranked second only to doctors themselves as the source of health information patients are most likely to turn to. Patients want information on their symptoms or diseases, but they also research treatments, diet and exercise, medications and OTC treatments, and even the reputations of specific doctors and hospitals.

For healthcare marketers, this raises an important content opportunity-and another way to achieve healthcare's aim of helping people through patient engagement. There are numerous ways to get the word out about your services and help deliver value to the patients you serve. But the market is hungry for high-quality content that can help with patient empowerment, whether that's navigating a new diagnosis or simply searching for camaraderie. Patient-centered content marketing strategies have an important place in the future of healthcare content marketing.

For more stories like this, subscribe to the Content Standard newsletter.

Subscribe to the Content Standard

Featured image attribution: Priscilla du Preez


Liz Alton

Liz Alton is a technology and marketing writer, and content strategist, for Fortune 500 brands and creative agencies. Her specialties include marketing, technology, B2B, big data/analytics, cloud, and mobility. She's worked with clients including Adobe, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Twitter, ADP, and Google. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and an MBA. She is currently pursuing a master’s in journalism from Harvard University.