When Edward Snowden, a former NSA employee told the world about U.S. government’s massive data mining and surveillance, we are reminded again that in today’s world, nobody is immune from effects of data. How we harness the power of data and maximize their positive effects will be an ongoing discussion.

UGC plays a significant role in healthcare communication, offering valuable data (photo: ORC International)

In the last few years, data has changed the landscape of the healthcare public relations (PR) industry where I work as a digital specialist. The change has been largely driven by the use of digital technologies and social media. As stakeholders in healthcare such as patients, physicians and advocacy groups increasingly rely on these emerging tools, healthcare PR has been creatively experimenting digital/social media strategies and tactics in this highly regulated industry. Significant amount of data are being created as a result of user-generated content (UGC) such as tweets, Facebook posts, blogs, forum comments as well as digital activities on mobile apps.

As PR professionals, we typically analyze these digital assets from a communication or marketing stand point–where are relevant conversations taking place? How many tweets are being issued? How do we drive online engagement? How can we reach targeted audiences? What can we do to drive conversion rate?

These are all great questions but one thing is missing–a pure communication or marketing-oriented approach does not necessarily drive value from a healthcare perspective. As our biggest clients–pharma companies and healthcare organizations–started shifting to an outcome-oriented model, we need to seriously consider what changes we need to make to maintain healthy and sustainable growth moving forward. A fundamental change might be that we need to share the ultimate goal of other stakeholders—to demonstrate our capability to drive value in healthcare. The advent of Big Data era offers us opportunities to achieve that goal.

Back in 2010, Michael Porter, a professor at Harvard Business School, stated in an commentary in New England Journal of Medicine that achieving high value for patients must become the overarching goal of healthcare delivery, with value defined as the health outcomes achieved per dollar spent. Today, the change of value proposition is taking place across different business functions in healthcare. An outcome-oriented model means cost-effectiveness analysis will be conducted at every point of care. For healthcare providers, this means a new reimbursement model based on patient outcomes instead of the number of procedures conducted; for pharma companies, this means a closer scrutiny of a medication’s efficacy. Healthcare PR, with its immense database of UGC, can play a unique role in translating communication data into clinical context,  facilitating clients to demonstrate value in a healthcare setting.

User generated content serves as huge data resource for healthcare PR (photo: http://www.incrowdnow.com )

From government agencies to start-ups, entities have been discussing and implementing healthcare data integration. Last week, the fourth annual Health Datapalooza Conference, a meeting focused on innovation in liberating health data attracted more than 2,000 attendees from both public and private sectors. How to utilize public data in healthcare was a popular topic. As I mentioned in an earlier post, epidemiologists have utilized Facebook for obesity surveillance. PatientsLikeMe, an online patient channel has been collecting self-reported data for clinical analysis. These efforts suggest that data that PR accesses and analyzes everyday for communication initiatives may also be used to demonstrate outcomes, offering a whole new area for the industry to grow and evolve.

As healthcare PR’s largest clientele, pharma is experiencing some major challenges–patent cliff, poor scientific productivity, a tighter regulatory environment, stronger price control–innovation in data will also be essential for PR to cope with changes of the industry. According to PWC, a consultancy, as pharma shifts away from “drug sellers,” new business models will emerge and pharma will have a more diverse portfolio covering more aspects of patient care, from prevention, intervention to rehabilitation.

New opportunity for healthcare PR: Utilize communication data to leverage value in healthcare with (photo: thesidenoteblog)

Healthcare PR needs to evolve accordingly.

Some of the changes can be easy. For example, mobile apps developed to drive disease awareness can integrate functions to record and track user’s outcomes for data analysis. Disciplines of clinical trials can be introduced to measure outcomes of different physician–patient communication efforts. Crowd-sourcing search results can provide epidemiological insights into prevalence of outbreaks of disease. And as we gain more understanding of analyzing data across disciplines, more complex and sophisticated efforts will further change the approach of PR.

Just like the shift in medicine, healthcare PR needs to demonstrate value instead of volume. From a digital and social media perspective, the simple measurement of Facebook Likes and the number of retweets will become less relevant; instead, a disease awareness campaign’s effects on changing people’s perceptions or motivating the general public to take action may become more necessary to measure. As a result, the healthcare PR industry needs to invest on improving such skill set from today. Capabilities such as data analysis, public health integration and understanding processes of drug development and healthcare policies will be essential for tomorrow’s success.