by Stephanie Yu
February 10th, 2015

“The doctor knows best,” has long been a commonly held belief in China. It seemed to make sense. Doctors are specially trained to identify and help treat illnesses. But what this also reveals is the large reliance Chinese patients have had on doctors when it comes to managing their own health care.

In an environment where Chinese public hospitals once earned half of their income through prescriptions, and where many patients have not had a high level of understanding about their condition, healthcare companies have historically focused more on education of doctors and health professionals , rather than educating patients directly via disease awareness campaigns. It is no wonder then there is a lack of knowledge among patients about the causes and symptoms of various health conditions; and the therapies available.

This may be changing. In China’s new market landscape, there are signs that a winning strategy must now recognize the increasing involvement of patients in their own health management.

Five reasons health companies are focusing more on patient empowerment:

1. There is a growing recognition that patients would benefit from a greater ability to make informed choices together with their doctor: Although the government is successful in covering around 95% of the Chinese population through health insurance schemes, out-of-pocket costs can be high. Some treatments for serious diseases are not on the National Reimbursement Drugs List (NRDL). Of course, China is no different from other countries in having to manage healthcare budgets carefully. It would be helpful if more patients were informed enough to understand the options and factor in their own circumstances.

2. Doctor surgeries are under pressure. The high number of patients in many surgeries often means shorter consultations and, when coupled with patients’ lack of disease knowledge, can lead to misdiagnosis and potential doctor-patient disputes. There’s a growing need for public disease awareness campaigns to improve understanding of China’s major public health issues. These should be not just ‘one-off campaigns’ around a product launch, but long-term awareness programs to increase public disease knowledge and patients’ adherence to the right therapies.

3. Changing healthcare policies and business models are elevating the importance of other stakeholders. The Chinese Government is currently exploring multiple policy initiatives to control the price and volume of prescription drugs. As a result, the market landscape is changing. These new dynamics mean that the traditional sales model for healthcare companies is likely to change. More resources are therefore likely to go towards educating patients about their condition, combined with giving advice on the best treatments available. Other marketing channels may also need to be leveraged, especially digital platforms like social media and mobile apps, which will continue to play a much bigger role in engaging both doctors and patients.   

4. Low awareness means lower levels of diagnosis and treatment management. When people are sick, but don’t know it, or worse, are too scared to find out what might be wrong with them, then, by definition, there are fewer patients within any given population. In China, this might ease the already high demand for doctors, but it may also pose a greater risk to the general well-being of the nation. Educating patients directly, particularly in the second and third tier cities outside of Beijing and Shanghai, may produce better outcomes for both the healthcare system and for healthcare companies, as more patients are encouraged to manage their health responsibly. 

5. Patients have enormous potential to become more educated, discerning and involved: Although poor awareness currently persists in China, the country’s 640 million internet users have access to a growing body of online healthcare content. When coupled with growing per capita income, this is starting to create a growing group of better-informed patients. As their understanding grows, they will press for better service and access to the best treatments. Patients’ increasing involvement in treatment decisions requires a more patient-focused approach from healthcare companies. It is not a choice between education doctors or patients. The focus will be on educating both sides of the equation.

Considerations for Successful Patient Empowerment in China    

Like many other countries, China has strict provisions regulating healthcare marketing;   for example, it is illegal to advertise non over-the-counter treatments. Other factors may also have led healthcare MNCs to question the value of patient-centric disease education. These include the challenges of effective marketing given the regulatory barriers. However, opportunities to drive awareness, and business growth, in this new era are plentiful with the right strategic approach.

1. Digital health isn’t just a phase, it is the future: About 82% of China’s Internet users access the Internet via mobiles. Nearly seven out of ten have installed health-related apps; while six out of ten search online for health information. Moreover, China’s most popular mobile-based social media platform, WeChat, is used by over 1,000 Chinese opinion-leading doctors to provide counsel and education to patients.

But leveraging the potential of digital platforms should not be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Companies need to focus on where their target stakeholders are; and ensuring their messages are relevant. Good social listening tools are available to understand better the views of patients. This understanding is critical to informing a comprehensive, integrated, communication strategy.

2. Tell ‘people stories’ to explain the “science behind the brand”. According to the results of a qualitative study of top-tier healthcare media in China, human stories and scientific evidence are crucial to drawing attention of the right audiences.

There has also been a marked shift away from media stories focused on healthcare organizations, and macro trends towards people-centric features, reflecting the Government’s focus to improve primary care and universal coverage.

3. Create visual, shareable content: Peer-to-peer influence is powerful; nearly half of Chinese consumers trust recommendations from their peers on social media. Incorporating photography, videos, infographics, or charts can help ensure valuable information gets read and shared by more people. When executed well, a tangible return on investment can often be realized quickly. Enlisting the support of health conscious influencers or disease advocates can also help to extend reach.

Furthermore, the increasing use of data visualization is not only effective work for doctors: similar approaches can be adapted for patient education in China too, New evidence, technique breakthroughs, and new ways of administering therapies are all valuable sources for creating digestible, helpful information content for patients. For innovations not developed in China, companies should take particular care to highlight the benefits for Chinese society and patients and ensure communications is relevant.

Stephanie Yu is Senior Vice President at Weber Shandwick Healthcare Practice (and dna Communications, a division of Weber Shandwick)

Click to read the full article published in Communiqué

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