Online health info seekers struggle with overload and trust: study

Weber Shandwick’s recent “Great American Search for Healthcare Information” study in some ways ended up being the great American search for trust. The communications and marketing services company, along with partner KRC Research, found in general a sizable credibility gap between what healthcare information seekers find online and what they trust.

While the vast majority of people (81%) go online for healthcare information, more than half (52%) are concerned about false or misleading information online and 47% are concerned that the health-related information they find is just trying to sell them something.

Pharma companies in particular fared poorly. On a list of 28 different health information sources, drugmakers ranked well below average with only 30% of people satisfied with them as a source. That fell below the 40% overall average for all sources and well below the top ranking, 66%, of people satisfied with physician assistants and nurses as sources of information.

Among people who actively seek information on medication, pharma companies didn’t even rank in the group of top five sources. Medical websites and doctors ranked highest, but so did pharmacists, health insurers and friends.

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It may be in part because pharma information and communications can be complicated, Leslie Gaines-Ross, Weber Shandwick chief reputation strategist, said.

“Millennials and Gen Z are more likely to say that the information is just too complex,” she said. “And then it’s also the overload and conflicting information and not knowing who to trust—there are too many channels and too much information. The question is how do you break through with healthcare information that is so desperately needed because everyone seems to be confused.”

Laura Schoen, president of Weber Shandwick’s global healthcare practice, added, “Health is now everyone’s territory. Even companies in areas that are not involved in healthcare delivery or services are using digital channels to talk about health. They talk about health more related to wellness, but it adds to the overall noise in the category.”

Weber Shandwick broke out its findings across generational groups, and although generational attitudes were generally more similar than different, the millennial generation stood out with several unexpected findings, Schoen said. For one, millennials identified as the largest group of caregivers among all generations, which makes them an emerging and key audience for marketers.

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Millennials were also more skeptical of interactions with medical professionals and even indicated that their peers were more influential than healthcare professionals when it comes to healthcare information. Thirty-eight percent of millennials surveyed agreed with the statement, “I trust my peers more than I trust medical professionals.” That’s more than 10 percentage points over the average 26% among all age groups.

The report offers a range of tips to help pharma and healthcare companies bridge the healthcare credibility gap, which will become even more important as Gen Zers and millennials age, Schoen and Gaines-Ross said. For instance, reassessing content to make sure it's relevant and useful versus just adding volume and confusion will be important.

“Digital and social media are highly influential and are seen as key sources of information,” Schoen said. “Unfortunately, we have also noted that there is a high degree of skepticism. … These are important issues for people marketing healthcare products, especially Rx products.”