Recently, we sat down with Weber Shandwick’s Director of Digital Health, Stacey Bernstein, to talk about emerging digital health trends and the impact of social and native advertising on the healthcare world. Check out more from our network experts in our 1st Take series.

What’s the number one trend you’re seeing in the digital health space at the moment?

StaceyBernsteinCan “actual movement” be a legitimate answer to this? In all honesty, for years we saw more of our pharmaceutical clients crippled by fear. Without regulatory guidance on what they could and could not do in social media, they chose to sit on the sidelines. What I’ve seen in the last 6 months is companies have stopped waiting for guidelines and have started engaging. It’s a really fascinating transformation. We just completed some high level research about pharma’s use of social media and the results show that the lack of regulatory guidance is no longer the main concern. What’s really top of mind for them is the challenge of socializing ideas internally and getting buy-in to go, go, go. This is a huge shift.

Aside from that, data is so critically important. With literally thousands of apps, websites and even new devices that track your every movement, people are suddenly inundated with an immense amount of data…about themselves. But now that we have this data, what do we do with it? How do we take the stats that your Fit Bit gives you, couple them with your electronic EKG monitor, add that to your MyFitnessPal food log, and actually use those numbers to improve your overall health? That’s a question everyone’s trying to answer.

Hospitals, health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, public health organizations…in your mind, which area has had the most advancement in social media and digital marketing? Why?

I think that in a lot of ways, hospitals and public health organizations are leading the way. For public health, the reason is obvious – they’re not burdened by FDA or HIPPA guidelines, so they have a tremendous freedom to do really innovative and more provocative work. Hospitals are a bit more of an interesting story. They don’t deal with FDA, but they still have HIPPA, and that presents some pretty significant privacy concerns. But despite this, we’re seeing hospitals lead the way in social engagement — even when it comes to adoption of new platforms and technologies. One of the first cases of an organization using Vine in the health space was not a consumer health company, which is what you would assume – it was a hospital.

Social and native advertising. Still an untouched arena for most healthcare companies and organizations?

For the most part, yes. Not to keep harkening back to guidelines, but it’s virtually impossible for pharma companies to advertise online in most of the limited space formats that are available to them. Most healthcare companies are leveraging social ads to some degree for unbranded initiatives, but more advanced advertising to support the more sophisticated content-driven work we’re doing for clients is entirely new territory. Especially when we talk about some of the newer platforms like Outbrain – there’s just a lack of understanding of how these platforms work and the opportunities they present to healthcare companies.

That said, the hesitations aren’t overstated – the healthcare industry in general faces unique challenges when it comes to advertising online. Not only are there regulatory concerns, but figuring out how to measure ROI for a healthcare company’s paid efforts online is an ongoing struggle. For consumer goods companies, it’s relatively easy – directly track things like sales and coupon downloads as a result of social ads and you’ve got a pretty good framework for success. But for healthcare companies, it’s virtually impossible to track prescriptions as a result of the activities you undertake in social. And when you’re talking about content that’s trying to ultimately drive behavior change, none of the usual metrics seem to cut it. The entire ROI matrix needs to be completely different.

What gets you jazzed about tackling digital health projects each day?

I truly believe that digital is redefining the way people take care of their health. And I love that we get to help our clients navigate this new environment and figure out how to leverage digital and social to make people’s lives better. In most instances, we’re not selling a product, we’re selling a lifestyle. That’s something you can feel good about at the end of the day. Ultimately I always say that “digital health” is not just about launching a Facebook and Twitter page for your clients. In fact, that’s the least of what it’s about. It’s really about empowering people to take control of their health, and positioning your clients as the enablers of that activity. And in healthcare, there is no better way right now to do that than through digital.

Image courtesy of ULC Mathematical and Physical Sciences.

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