Patient portals open door to lasting relationships with patients, 'Digital Doctor' says

Dr. Bob Wachter

Patient portals are making a splash in healthcare. Drugmakers want to be "patient-centric." So, it must be time for pharma marketers to jump into the water, says Dr. Robert Wachter, author of a new book about the intersection of digital technology and medicine.

More patients are checking their healthcare information online, emailing their doctors, refilling meds via websites and researching clinical trial results with a few clicks of the trackpad. Doctors' waiting rooms have computerized check-ins, and digital records already allow some hospitals and physician offices to link clinical information seamlessly.

The same user-friendly features could be used by pharma companies looking to drive brand loyalty and recognition, said Wachter, professor and associate chairman of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco. Companies can build their presence on sites patients are comfortable using, and, with the right information and tools, create a direct relationship with patients--and brand loyalty that is "hard to replicate" Wachter told FiercePharmaMarketing.

"If I was in the pharma marketing business, I'd want to be as well positioned in the patient portal as I could be," said Wachter, author of The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine's Computer Age.

"If a pharma company can figure out a way to be helpful to the patient without crossing various ethical lines, which is a tricky balance," he said, "then it's a way to create a stickier relationship with the patient than traditional advertising."

But leveraging the technology does not come without its challenges. Aggregating patient information online opens the door to potential security breaches, and any company looking to use the collected data will need to jump through a "fair number of hoops" to gain access, Wachter said. To address security concerns, new rules may limit how companies use patient information and when, potentially putting a damper on marketing.

"Over time, the portals will become more and more sophisticated, more organized," Wachter points out. "The physician will know that the patient has a migraine, has diabetes. I think one of the questions for the pharma industry will be: What is the locus of control over those portals?"