Is Dr Google redefining our professional relationships?

Do search engines and other online innovations have the power to redefine professional relationships across industries?

The question gathers urgency among corporate achievers looking to take the reins of major companies as an ongoing digital revolution threatens to overturn established business models, even in areas where long-established practice seemed entrenched.

Perhaps the biggest single indicator of the impending shake-up is the current rethink of marketing strategies that have traditionally dominated the global pharmaceutical industry.

The old norm was characterised by facetime with doctors, free samples to encourage product trial and perhaps ‘gifting’ to cement relationships between pharma brand and physician.

According to industry-watchers in the USA, this model is being overtaken as the medical sector adjusts to new online realities.

Doctor Google Signium Africa Social

The pharma industry’s traditional target audience – physicians – confront an online challenge in the shape of ‘Dr Google’ as search engines create instant consumer access to medical information.

Online tools called symptom-checkers make it easy for consumers to obtain a DIY diagnosis.

Research shows 35% of US adults have gone online to identify a medical condition. Hypochondria now has a digital equivalent, cyberchondria.

As a result, doctors are witnessing huge behavioural shifts, requiring pharmaceutical concerns to do the same.

The Journal of the American Medical Association says occasional misdiagnosis by doctors is a concern, though a recent JAMA paper indicated physicians significantly outscore computer algorithms for diagnostic accuracy (84,3% against 51,2% by one measure). However, flesh-and-blood doctors gave an incorrect diagnosis 15% of the time.

Doctors – initially hostile to Dr Google – increasingly look at ways of augmenting their services by the use of digital tools while trying to educate patients to the difference between medical data and medical advice. Some even recommend that patients visit sites that provide credible assistance.

Meanwhile, the Google trend and related developments have alerted the pharmaceutical industry to opportunities for a new relationship with medical professionals.

Physicians were early adopters of mobile technology, including beepers, pagers, PDAs, smartphones, tablets and handheld devices for consulting patient records and reference works.

As long ago as 2009, one US source put the healthcare sector’s investment in handheld devices and similar technology at $8,2 billion.

Clearly, gadget-friendly doctors are open to new avenues for marketing interaction.

The process is already underway. Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter create space for physicians to organise online communities while US sites like Physicians Interactive and Sermo (for MDs only) reach nearly a million medical professionals. 

Such platforms enable pharmaceutical companies to engage doctors in new ways.

Some pharmaceutical companies are therefore looking to retool their marketing strategies and embrace the cyber-future. Hiring medical communication specialists to engage online with doctors is one route forward.

One marketing consultant says online interventions could help doctors cut information clutter and facilitate links with clinical trials, research papers and opinion-leaders.

The retail, hotel and travel industries have already had to adjust to new cyber-realities. A second wave of industries looks set to make similar adjustments.

It is little wonder major companies increasingly look for leaders who show acute awareness of digital trends and demonstrate flexibility and a spirit of innovation in the face of change.

Being steady and dependable is no longer enough. To lead an organisation into the future, you may have to be radical, even revolutionary, thinking out of the box!

*Auguste (Gusti) Coetzer is a Director of Signium Africa (previously Talent Africa), a leading South African-based executive search and talent management company servicing sub-Saharan Africa.

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