Caregivers: An Untapped Audience

Posted by Shweta Patro from Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide Marketing & Analytics - North America on March 20, 2017


Though often forgotten by healthcare marketers, caregivers are instrumental as advisors in pivotal health decisions and the enforcers of treatment adherence. The 43.5 million caregivers in the United States are deeply engaged in the digital healthcare spaces, often accessing patient resources online.[1]  But marketers often overlook these invisible stakeholders, one step removed from the traditional patient journey. Caregivers are a group in their own right, filling key roles that are distinct from patients and physicians.

Caregivers play a pivotal role in the doctor’s office, as informational ninjas who can ask questions and fill gaps in knowledge that patients and HCPs cannot. It is well-documented that patients generally find it difficult to fully comprehend information in a clinical setting. The average patient forgets 40% to 80% of medical information given by their HCPs immediately, and this number only increases with age. Patients also tend to view statements about diagnosis as more important than statements about treatment, making a caregiver’s presence ever more important to patient adherence.[2] First appointments are significant, as a good first impression can result in better follow-up care. A 2014 review found that caregivers recalled information from initial clinical encounters more accurately than both patients and HCPs.[3] In addition, the immediate anxiety of both mundane and life-altering diagnoses makes digesting any subsequent information particularly difficult for patients. Ultimately, when the patient’s ability to make decisions in the exam room is diminished, the caregiver acts as an objective interpreter of medical information, and an active part of spearheading treatment and recovery.

The number of caregivers is projected to increase in coming years. The U.S. Census Bureau recently projected that in 2020, for the first time in human history, people over 65 years old will outnumber children under 5.[4] This demographic shift will be accompanied by the need for support for this burgeoning population, many of whom will be frequent fliers at healthcare facilities across the nation. The AARP estimates that by 2020, 45 million unpaid caregivers (generally friends, spouses, or parents) will be providing essential support to disabled people of all ages; this includes helping aging baby boomers deal with a host of new or worsening health problems.[5] There is no doubt that clinic waiting rooms will be filled to capacity in coming years with both patients and caregivers.

Caregivers as a group need support. The International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) recognizes “caregiver role strain” as a disease.[6] More commonly known as caregiver burnout, this condition affects overwhelmed friends and family who take care of patients. Members of the “sandwich generation” are the fastest growing group of caregivers. Often put in the difficult position of caring for and supporting both their children and parents, these overwhelmed, overworked Gen Xers will be looking online for support. Marketers can help these individuals by parsing complicated health information to better enable caregivers to choose healthcare and manage treatments. Online communities and advocacy organizations have provided social support in dealing with the emotional and mental tolls of caregiving since the dawn of digital health communication. Studying forums and online support groups could lead to insights on how to reach caregivers. A 2011 study showed that for several conditions (Alzheimer’s disease, lung cancer, brain cancer, cystic fibrosis), caregivers drive more online discussion than patients or HCPs.[7] Healthcare marketers can fill the need for emotional and community support for this group by providing informational and social resources.

Pharma has made forays into the caregiver space in specialty marketing (through providing platforms for cancer advocates) and wellness (gearing erectile dysfunction campaigns to partners).[8] Successful caregiver campaigns play on the power of caregivers as influencers. Patients look to them at nearly every step in the consumer funnel, from exploration and diagnosis through treatment and retention. Caregivers can help marketers bridge gaps in the traditional patient journey model. For instance, physician encounters are generally the points used to chart a patient’s journey even though they represent a relatively small portion of the disease experience.[9] Caregivers, in their function as sentinels for both HCPs and patients, can provide marketers with insight into how brief marketing touch points can influence patient behavior for months across several channels. The traditional patient journey model operates under the assumption that patients are rational and their experiences linear. Caregivers can help us see logic, nuance, and isolation in patient behaviors. They add authenticity into the traditional healthcare decision-making model, helping us better understand the motivations and behaviors surrounding disease.

Pharmaceutical companies spend billions of dollars a year trying to understand and market their products to patients and HCPs. Healthcare marketing wisdom is centered on targeting patients and HCPs at different parts of their journey, an approach which minimizes the importance of caregivers as key stakeholders. The increased integration of EHRs into marketing and the use of social media allow marketers to better reach HCPs and patients, respectively, opening up the door to integration across platforms and demographics. These innovations are exciting, but they ignore key participants in treatment and care: caregivers. Caregivers, with their active online communities and influencer status, comprise a key audience that marketers have yet to effectively reach.