Wednesday, March 5, 2008

"Succeeding in online health" lunch meeting

The Mass. Technology Leadership Council is (as I type this) having a "lunch and learn" session titled "Patient, Heal Thyself: How to Succeed with Online Consumer Health Sites." When I first read the title, I heard "How to make a great online consumer health site," but hey, it's a high-tech business lunch, so it's about how to make a buck at it.

That's fine with me - the "helping people save their butts" community can use some infusions of cash, as investors take advantage of the reality that billions of people are entering the phase of life where they get serious illness and want to have their butts saved. Build great, useful online health resources, and the world will improve.

Here's a clue, investors: to build success, don't sit in a conference room figuring out what someone would want, and do NOT emulate the many web sites that say "Here is what we believe you should want to know." Just ask patients what they want to talk about.

I'm not being anti-establishment here, I'm being businesslike. Peer-reviewed medical journals may be full of reproducible experimental results, but (a) they may not answer what people want to ask, and (b) as happened in my cancer, the best current peer-reviewed journal articles may not be useful anymore. Ironically, people whose butts are on the line may find (as I did) that those are not reliable resources! They are necessary, to be sure, but they may be obsolete, and they may not even answer the questions people want to ask.

Tom Ferguson MD, founder of the e-Patient Scholars Working Group, felt strongly that we often have it upside down, when we have doctors decide what people need to hear. And as we move into e-health, I think he' s right: failure to ask patients "what do you want to hear about?" will be as deadly (business-wise) in online health as it was in any other industry that went through its "railroad" phase. (Can you say "Marketing Myopia"?)

It's a simple business principle - ordinary consumer market research. Do not start by asking the providers what they think we should hear. Use them as a highly valued resource, but don't start by asking them.

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