WhatsApp could prove a powerful patient engagement tool for pharma

May 21, 2018 Sharath George

Can mobile messaging help pharma succeed in patient engagement where past efforts have failed? 

by Sharath George, Manager, Social Insights

In many countries, WhatsApp is becoming a verb, with users telling each other to ‘WhatsApp me’ much as you might say “Message me” or “Text me,” depending on the market. In July 2017, WhatsApp announced that the platform has 1 billion active users every day. By Q3 2017, 65% of Germans and 56% of Brazilians used WhatsApp. The service has become so popular that an outage in service results in global panic.

With that kind of user base, the platform should merit attention from marketers in every industry. However, until recently, the Facebook-owned company shunned advertising and neglected to build a pathway for brands to play on its platform. With the advent of WhatsApp for Business, the company’s first serious attempt to monetize the platform, this is changing. As part of the recently launched pilot program, an Indian movie ticketing company Bookmyshow sends a WhatsApp message to users who have entered their phone number and paid for a ticket online. The message confirms their ticket and sent them an image with a QR code which can be scanned to enter the movie. Users can easily opt out by replying ‘Stop’.

Could there be lessons here for pharma? Over the years, pharma companies have tried different ways of engaging patients to improve medication adherence, provide support resources, etc. The standard tactic is to use a patient support website or section that the patient can visit with or without guidance from their physician. With the rise of the smartphone, a few ambitious companies tried creating dedicated mobile apps, which provide everything from medication reminders to educational resources. But the truth is, most patients do not want to use an app for each medicine they take, or even an app for each company. Mobile apps therefore failed to bridge the gap between pharma companies and their end customers, apart from a few isolated successes. Text messages were tried as well, but were largely found to be too cumbersome to use and limited in terms of data and media types they can transmit.

Now imagine the same service adapted for patient care. A patient visits their doctor, who offers to help them sign up for support services directly from the pharmaceutical company. The doctor either helps them sign up or provides them reading material with a scannable QR code or phone number to start a chat with the pharma company. The patient provides details of their prescription and the company sends them reminders to take their medication, along with information about the drug, tips on managing their condition, etc. The patient is also provided with keywords to reply with to start or stop each service. They might even confirm that they took their medication on time in exchange for some kind of reward, like a coupon for their next prescription fill. The advantage for the customer is that they are in control and need not install seldom-used apps that will just clutter up their phone.

Of course, given Facebook’s “Fake news” foibles, patients might be reluctant to communicate medical information over a Facebook-owned platform. For pharma, a more urgent question is that of HIPAA compliance. Although the service boasts strong encryption, storing messages on the cloud opens up vulnerability. HIPAA also requires access protection, for which the app must create some type of password authentication that confirms the identity of the user before messages or even notifications about messages can be served. WhatsApp does not not yet have such features, though this could be accomplished via settings on the device itself.

If pharmas were to take the lead and resolve some of these questions, messaging platforms like WhatsApp might prove powerful tools for improving patient engagement, allowing them to connect with patients through apps they use routinely.  

Want to know more about emerging platforms and technologies that could benefit your brand? Need to better understand how your patients, physicians or payers are finding digital information to support their decision-making around treatments? Contact us at Digital@TeamDRG.com.

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