Pharma marketers: Rural patients have a digital connection but want a human one, too

It’s not accessibility that’s keeping rural patients from embracing digital healthcare, it’s attitudes and understanding.

A new report from Phreesia Life Sciences, “Industry perspectives: Bridging the rural digital-health divide,” surveyed 4,751 adult patients—2,902 urban and suburban patients and 1,849 in rural areas, of varying ages and races, both privately insured and those on Medicaid—to get a better understanding of how rural versus urban patients engage with the internet when it comes to health information.

The study found there was only a 1% difference in the access to smartphones and data plans compared to their urban counterparts—7% versus 6%. The use of the phones is similar in both areas as well—email, surfing the web, listening to music, etc. It’s when it comes to using those phones for health information that the gap tends to widen. For urban dwellers, 68% reported using the internet to search for health information, for suburban it was 65%, but in rural areas only 61% said they did this kind of research.

So if it’s not connectivity, what’s stopping rural folks from using the internet?

“When we actually move to the health and literacy section, the overall issue is that they're less confident in terms of managing their health,” Joyce Wang, Phreesia’s associate director of research, said. “It’s ‘Oh health I don't know. I don't understand a lot of things in this area. I'm just going to let my doctor's office to do everything for me.’ But because they’re so far away they less access to care.”

There’s the irony—people in rural areas have less access to doctors just based on availability but simultaneously are less willing to use online health tools to help manage their care.

Phreesia’s data show 39% percent of rural patients need to travel on average over 20 miles for their healthcare, compared to 9% of their urban counterparts. This resulted in 14% of rural patients missing a doctor’s visit in the past year, compare to 9% of urbanites. Even more alarming, rural patients have higher rates of chronic conditions than those in urban and suburban areas.

So, how can marketers address and ultimately fix this issue?

Phreesia’s report features a list of ideas for helping rural patients feel more connected to online health. Suggestions include reaching them through their usual channels of communication such as social media and email, building trust by connecting these patients to local healthcare providers and resources, offering technical support and education to help build digital-health literacy which boosts confidence when managing their care.

Many responders said that more personalized content and disease-specific education were also really important to them. It’s also imperative to reach patients at the point of care and support their conversations with their doctor by offering personalized content that is easy to understand and will help them to have more informed conversations with the HCPs.

“What we're trying to tell marketers, you know, really, let's not overlook this tool, this is something we should utilize. Let's find out ways to really improve the health literacy among this population,” Wang said.