CAMPAIGN REPORT ON HEALTHCARE: Web treatment - Healthcare companies could face a headache if they fall behind with their online offerings, Robert Gray writes

Nobody knows precisely how many websites there are offering health or medical treatment advice. But if you try keying the word ’health’ into one of the leading online search engines, you get some idea. With AltaVista this exercise at the end of last year produced a staggering 31.6 million pages, which is probably only the tip of the cyber-iceberg.

Nobody knows precisely how many websites there are offering health

or medical treatment advice. But if you try keying the word ’health’

into one of the leading online search engines, you get some idea. With

AltaVista this exercise at the end of last year produced a staggering

31.6 million pages, which is probably only the tip of the


Increasingly, consumers are turning to the internet for advice on

medical conditions. Even the traditional media have picked up on the

trend. ’How the internet saved my life’, ’Ah yes, cancer. Just click

here for a cure’ and ’My doctor had the facts but I had the net’ are

headlines from recent stories in the national press about three people

with unrelated conditions and their use of the web to find


Last November, the British Medical Journal published an article

entitled: ’Shopping around the internet today and tomorrow: towards the

millennium of cybermedicine.’ The article said that 27 per cent of

female internet users and 15 per cent of male users access health

information at least once a week and predicted that massive consumer

demand would continue to fuel the growth of healthcare websites. But it

also warned of the variable quality of advice online, asserting that it

ranged from ’the useful to the dangerous’.

This massive variance in quality is a major issue for the reputable

brand owners to address in their communications. It has also led to the

creation of some websites dedicated to shooting down some of the more

outrageous therapy claims made online, such as Quackwatch


The 7 December launch by the Government of the NHS Direct website

(, which allows patients to enter into a digital

dialogue with doctors, further underscores the importance now attached

to providing medical information online. So too does the dollars 1

billion purchase of a 10 per cent stake in the US online health

information network, Healtheon/WebMD, by Rupert Murdoch’s News

Corporation. Healtheon ( provides online healthcare

information and acts as a link between patients, doctors, and the rest

of the healthcare system. It will get dollars 700 million worth of

promotion from News Corp over the next ten years, most of it in the form

of free advertising.

The concept of online pharmacies, pioneered in the US, has already

arrived in the UK despite regulations that restrict the promotion and

selling of prescription medicines on the web. The Leeds-based Pharmacy

2U ( is already running and a rival operation,, is preparing its own launch.

Trevor Isherwood , group account director at the Omnicom-owned

healthcare agency, Paling Walters Targis, says: ’This sets a new

challenge for the pharmacy companies. How will they capitalise on their

web presence to drive brand loyalty? Consumers visiting websites about

specific conditions are often seeking information and reassurance. The

internet allows the manufacturers to gain a deeper insight into these

consumers, their motivations, their symptoms, their beliefs.’

Fewer regulations in the US mean that prescription medicines can be

promoted direct to consumers from US websites, whereas prescription

products in the UK can at present only be marketed to medical

professionals. ’People print stuff off and go to their doctors with it.

I don’t think doctors would be too happy if it looked like a promotional

flyer,’ Sheila Kelly, executive director of the healthcare trade body,

the Proprietary Association of Great Britain, says. The differing

regulations on each side of the Atlantic has meant that most of the

interesting websites are US-based.

’Consumers are becoming a lot more comfortable about accessing

healthcare information, so websites are a real opportunity for

pharmaceutical companies,’ John Goundry, client services director at

Herman Beasley, which is developing several sites with healthcare

clients, says.

’It’s still a medium that many pharmaceu-tical companies haven’t

embraced. They need to look at it because the services you can provide

are changing every day. And you can’t afford to just leave a website for

six months, it’s got to be maintained and developed all the time.’

However, with over-the-counter brands, some inventive healthcare sites

are beginning to emerge.

Pharmacia & Upjohn’s website for its Nicorette product designed to help

people stop smoking ( includes desktop diversion

games for smokers to download and play as a ’brief distraction from the

urge to light up’. Other sites for products such as Strepsils, Savlon

and Regaine shun amusement for a more serious tone, yet still do a good

branding job.

Isherwood says: ’Some pharmaceutical companies understand that the

internet is not just a new way of selling more products, it is about

developing the brand, establishing a relationship with the consumer and

allowing them to interact with their brands of choice.

’Looking to the more global brands we see that the internet is the only

truly global medium and the return on investment from reaching a

multitude of nationalities can be significant. Create a website for

irritable bowel syndrome and the UK audience may be small. Take that

site, adapt it for local markets, publish it in ten countries and the

audience becomes vast for a relatively small amount of extra money.’

FOUR OF THE BEST An amusing website from the Procter & Gamble stable that

allows you to e-mail ’get well’ postcards to friends, such as Mrs Katz’s

’famous recipe’ for chicken soup. Also contains interactive games like

’spritz-a-throat’ and a more serious ’get expert advice’ section that

helps consumers identify the most appropriate treatment for their

ailment from P&G’s range by keying in details of their symptoms. A funky site with in-your-face graphics aimed at acne

sufferers. Content on fashion trends and careers sit alongside skincare

advice to provide an appealing environment for a demanding young

audience. This US site for the hayfever treatment, Claritin,

makes clever use of e-mail. Key in your postcode and you will be sent

updates on the pollen count in your area. Slick graphics make the Canesten site more appealing

than you might imagine. It’s an online resource for information on

thrush, cystitis, nappy rash, sweat rash and athlete’s foot.

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