Engaging doctors online

As increasing numbers of healthcare companies and government organizations turn to dedicated social networks to engage healthcare professionals, business models for interacting with doctors are changing. But can these networks really improve outcomes for healthcare companies, and what is the future for the pharma rep?

Len Starnes, Digital Marketing & Sales Manager at Bayer Schering pharma in Berlin, says that he has been looking at the growth of dedicated physician networks, and he is convinced that these are the places where the healthcare industry should engage professionals. He says:

“I’m personally convinced that [dedicated physician networks] will play a very significant role in the way that the industry engages the profession in the future. If you look at the phenomenon globally, the numbers of doctors that are using networks, and if you look at behaviours and expectations of young doctors, they are all using social networks in some way and will expect to continue to use networks professionally.

“That poses the question, ‘are these platforms more suitable platforms for the industry to engage?’ And I’m absolutely convinced that they are.”


When it comes to connecting doctors to each other, to other health stakeholders, and to the Internet, Doctors.net.uk was amongst the first and is today one of the largest and most active networks of doctors in the world.

Formed in 1998 (the same year that Creation Healthcare started out), Doctors.net.uk has grown to over 170,000 members. All of these are GMC-authenticated UK doctors, of whom over 60,000 actively use Doctors.net.uk every month, and over 35,000 every day.  In 2009, Doctors.net.uk saw record levels of doctor engagement, with 25 million web sessions during the year.

In this video we explore how Doctors.net.uk has changed the landscape for engaging doctors online, with Doctors.net.uk’s Head of Pharma, Carwyn Jones

What do doctors do there?

Interaction between doctors is an important component of Doctors.net.uk, with an average of 907 visits per member to the social network’s forum during 2009.

The network is also seeing an increase in access to multimedia such as podcasts. In the final quarter of 2009, more than one in eight members accessed podcast interviews from medical conferences.

Opportunities for engaging doctors include medical education, eDetailing, and market research surveys, all of which doctors readily engage with, thanks to one or two innovative approached by Doctors.net.uk.

Members receive eSR (electronic Surfing Rewards) when they complete market research surveys. These can then be exchanged for merchandise or vouchers. Taking part in market research can earn a member between £5 and £80, and Doctors.net.uk says that last year over £1,000,000 in eSR points were earned by its members.

Why does this matter to healthcare companies?

If you are in a pharmaceutical or medical devices company and you want to inform doctors about a new product, then you will be aware of how difficult it can be to engage doctors. In a recent online poll by Doctors.net.uk, members were asked “When a drug is launched what is the most trusted source of information?” Only 6 (1%) of 571 respondents identifed “Pharma company sponsored fact sheet” as the most trusted source.

Whilst this figure can at best only be said to be representative of Doctors.net.uk members, it provides a clue that perhaps there are better ways of engaging healthcare professionals than traditional fact sheets.

In another member survey, the majority (58%) of 1,000 respondents named Doctors.net.uk as their preferred channel for receiving information about pharmaceutical products and medical devices, ahead of ‘local meetings’, ‘by reps’, and ‘conferences’.

Another important insight from member surveys is the level of trust that doctors place in Doctors.net.uk. Asked about the most trusted sources for health information, respondents named ‘medical publishers’ first, followed by Doctors.net.uk ahead of journals and the Department of Health, and with the pharmaceutical industry in last place.

This lack of trust amongst doctors will not be news to many in the the pharmaceutical industry, who understand the challenges that the industry has in gaining the trust of either healthcare consumers or professionals. Dedicated doctors’ networks like Doctors.net.uk provide an opportunity to engage through a trusted platform.

According to Doctors.net.uk, when AstraZeneca targeted doctors through Doctors.net.uk with an eDetail campaign in 2009 for their Symbicort SMART asthma management product, 6,425 GPs engaged with the campaign, and 71% said that they would increase their prescribing of Sybicort SMART.

A platform for engagement

I spoke with Carwyn Jones, Doctors.net.uk’s Head of Pharmaceutical Sales and Marketing, at Healthcare Engagement Strategy 2010 in London earlier this month, and I asked him what makes Doctors.net.uk so successful.

He said that the 35,000 unique Doctors every day participate because of Doctors.net.uk’s core values: Trust and transparency about interaction with doctors; independence; and collaboration – allowing doctors to collaborate with each other to improve their clinical practice.

Carwyn said that there are over twenty different services that doctors can use on Doctors.net.uk, and the way individual doctors use these varies by speciality. He said that the most popular services are continuing medical education, forums, the email service, medical news, journals and conference highlights.

I asked Carwyn about why commercial healthcare companies work with Doctors.net.uk. He explained why their sponsors engage with an existing and active network of doctors:

“The commercial sponsors that we work with have understood that there are a large number of doctors on a trusted network, that they can use to collaborate with and communicate to these doctors.

“With any online strategy, one of the key things is content, however even more important is engagement. Many companies have fallen foul of the ‘build it and they will come’ philosphy that says ‘if we build it, then surely many of our customers will come’ and that doesn’t happen.”

Carwyn does not claim Doctors.net.uk to be the ‘silver bullet’ of healthcare professional engagement, though. He says that when it comes to healthcare sales, nothing beats a real, face to face interaction by a rep with a doctor:

“Rep interaction is still the most powerful thing. Face to face interaction, I think, still beats an online interaction, but the costs and the resources that go behind the sales force are huge so companies are looking at other ways of getting that access.”

Doctors.net.uk is one of a number of dedicated networks for healthcare professionals in the UK. Internationally, the healthcare professional community is served by many other such networks. If you would like to plan an effective doctor engagement strategy to include healthcare professional networks, Creation.co can help you plan a strategy and put in place effective results measurement.

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