Australia’s healthcare environment is heavily regulated and subject to a strict code of conduct – and rightly so. Independence, credibility and trust are crucial foundations of the Australian medical industry.
Doctors and the general public believe that evidence should guide rational prescribing – but a recent Australian Prescriber article by Dr Leon Flicker, Director at the Western Australian Centre for Health and Ageing, has argued that it is in fact a relative few who drive national prescribing patterns. For the medical and public relations industries, these findings bring both opportunities and risks.
According to Dr Flicker, medicine is primarily a hierarchical industry – reliant on doctors channeling information internally. In fact, a systematic review found that primary care physicians are more likely to seek answers to clinical questions from colleagues than from electronic resources. This funneling of information from top to bottom has created the existence of healthcare ‘key opinion leaders’ or KOLs.
Dr Flicker argues that while there is concern from some over the ability to inappropriately influence these KOLs, there are also very tangible benefits for the healthcare industry. Such as:
1) Having a small number of experts reach a consensus on how to manage specific medical problems can increase consistency in primary and specialist treatment care;
2) Opinion leaders tend to have a narrow focus within a subspecialty, meaning they have a good working knowledge of the latest advancements in their fields; and
3) Opinion leaders are often ahead of the curve, having been involved in research and developments that may not have been published yet.
So what does this mean from a PR perspective? Well firstly that this trust must not be squandered.
Communications professionals should be identifying and establishing relationships with medical practitioners who are at the top of their subspecialty in order to provide additional credibility to healthcare programs.
The healthcare industry will continue to evolve, as debate rages over whether companies should show greater transparency in their dealings with doctors. In the meantime, communications professionals should still be focused on maintaining best practice by adhering to Medicines Australia’s most recent Code of Conduct.
Lastly, as with all communication campaigns, communications professionals should be looking to disseminate information in the form best suited to the audience. The hierarchical structure of the medical profession and the lack of reliance on electronic devices mean that emphasis should be placed on educating KOLs and fostering word of mouth as a principal communication tactic.