Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Talking Turkey At The Healthcare Table

With the holidays upon us, it’s natural to think about who will be seated at the table. That’s what interests me most about Sharecare, the new healthcare site founded by WebMD founder, Jeff Arnold: checking out who's sitting around the table.

Sharecare lets patients search for answers to common health questions, and ask new questions. Answers are provided by a bevy of non-profit health care experts including The Cleveland Clinic, The Red Cross, and the American Heart Association. But sponsors, such as Pfizer, J&J, Dove and Walgreens were also invited to the table.

This “participatory” sponsorship is a marked departure from the usual practice of seating sponsors at the “kiddy table,” while the grown-ups talk about the serious stuff. The site trusts that its sponsors will “behave” and provide answers untainted by commercial interest. Some things don’t change, however. Sponsors have to fork over several million dollars in order to participate.

The site clearly references the source of every answer. In a recent New York Times article, Arnold claimed that, “in tests of the Web site in the last year, the brand answers were read as much as the expert answers.”

The article reports that sponsors take their seats with the intention of minding their table manners and not do any overt selling. Pfizer, for example, will provide information on fibromyalgia and smoking cessation, but not about its products that treat those conditions. According to Paul Ewing, senior director for patient marketing at the United States primary-care business unit of Pfizer in New York, the company’s rationale for participating, “stems from a belief that informed people make better decisions about their health… and have better interactions with their health care providers.”

Not everyone, however, is happy about the new table mates. Headlines of blogs covering the post point to a graying of the line between professional content and information (The Medical Quack) and the forming of an unhealthy alliance (The Healthcare Marketer).

But in my opinion, this could be a meaningful way for pharmaceutical companies to participate in interactive communities. Pharma has spent years accumulating scientific information and developing relationships with experts. This is the kind of information that communities crave and the type of action that builds good will over time.

Who knows? Maybe if pharma keeps this up, they won’t even have to pay to sit at the table.

Probably a little holiday wishful thinking!


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