Deborah Lovich, a BCG vice president and co-leader of the firm's e-health initiative noted that two contradictory findings have surfaced. "On one hand, patients who use the Internet to explore health issues report that the information they find on-line has a real impact on how they manage their overall care and comply with prescribed treatments. This makes the Web an important lever for companies seeking to get patients more involved in care decisions", Ms. Lovich stated. "Yet, typical on-line traffic-building strategies don't seem to work, since usage patterns in e-health bear little resemblance to those in e-commerce."
This research shows that the more patients use the Web for health, the stronger their response to the call to action issued by health care companies. Indeed, those who use the Internet frequently are two to three times more likely than infrequent users to take action which affects their diagnosis and treatment. For example, the data patients find on-line result in their asking physicians more questions and in greater detail. But more importantly, when patients who frequently use the Internet for health consult with the doctor, about 36 percent suggest the specific illnesses that they are suffering from and 45 percent request specific treatments. In comparison, among those who hardly ever venture on-line to find health information, only 16 percent and 19 percent of patients respectively exhibit the same active involvement.
Harnessing the power of the Internet will be daunting for health care companies, since reaching patients on-line is difficult. Indeed, the research reveals two key dissimilarities between the searching behaviours of patients and consumers. First, unlike consumers seeking other information on-line, patients do not explore health topics on the Web at their leisure or for fun. In fact, the vast majority of 77 percent use the Internet for health issues only when they have specific questions.
Second, the same Internet users who might visit and return to Amazon to purchase books typically do not turn to health sites directly when they search for health information. To answer their health queries on the Web, 65 percent of patients usually start with general search engines such as Yahoo, Ask Jeeves, and Alta Vista. Only 24 percent make health portals such as WebMD and InteliHealth their first stop; a mere 11 percent start with disease-specific Web sites such as Oncology.com or MSWatch. And even those who favour specific health-related sites report that they initially found them through general search engines.
"These findings hold promise for all health care companies that benefit from influencing patient behaviour, such as pharmaceutical companies which stimulate new therapies and managed care players which promote patient compliance with disease-management initiatives. The new struggle will be figuring out how to reach them, particularly since where patients will end up when they log on for answers to health care questions remains highly unpredictable", commented Ms. Lovich. However, she noted that emerging shifts in patient behaviour suggest that health care companies can home in effectively on the patient segments that they wish to target on-line.
In a report released earlier this year, titled "Vital Signs: The Impact of E-Health on Patients and Physicians", BCG segmented patients based on the severity of their condition and their attitude toward physicians. The four patient segments are:
- Accepting or 8 percent of patients rely entirely on doctors for health information and decisions.
- Informed or 55 percent rely on doctors to make health decisions but typically go on-line after an office visit to learn more about a diagnosis or prescribed treatment without, in their view, wasting the doctor's time with questions.
- Involved or 28 percent view themselves as partners with their physicians in making care decisions and seek information on-line both before and after visits to discuss with their doctor. However, they still rely on their clinician to make the ultimate decision regarding care.
- In control or 9 percent feel best suited to determine their care; use on-line information to diagnose themselves before visits to determine which treatments they want and to convince their doctor to treat them accordingly.