It’s no secret that consumers have been turning to Dr. Google more and more to make health decisions and to help decipher their health records, test results, symptoms, prescriptions and doctor’s orders. But the wealth of information available has also made it harder to wade through what’s out there and sometimes causes more anxiety than the condition we’re looking to treat.
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with a chronic condition or serious illness, you appreciate the level of self-education you quickly go through as you bolster your knowledge on specialists, medication and treatment options, studies, preventative measures, and more. We become mini-specialists who can help others to navigate similarly murky waters. Or at least that’s what Roni Zeiger, founder of Smart Patients, thinks. Why not connect people with others who are struggling with the same challenges and have valuable information, recommendations or even just emotional support to share?
Smart Patients offers a community-based platform that helps connect those struggling with similar health issues. Zeiger partnered with Gilles Frydman to found the company, which initially focused on oncology to improve the experience of cancer patients. Frydman had extensive experience in building cancer patient communities and Zeiger, a doctor who was the former Chief Health Strategist at Google, had an in-depth understanding of how patients and caretakers were using the search engine to navigate their health. What questions were they asking? What support did they seek?
Zeiger noticed that most people weren’t just looking for content—they were looking for people with similar experiences. Though Smart Patients started with roots in onocology, as the team worked with more partners, medical centers and advocacy organizations, word spread about the brand and additional communities within the Smart Patients ecosystem soon emerged—and continue to grow.
Zeiger sat down with Nicole Diamant, Senior Marketing Manager for InterbrandHealth, to discuss Smart Patients and its healthcare communities.
Nicole Diamant: At this year’s SHSMD conference, you spoke about patient engagement. Do you see that as the biggest challenge health systems face today? How should organizations be thinking differently about their brands and their customers?
Roni Zeiger: I think the biggest challenge and opportunity today is creating a meaningful and collaborative relationship between health systems and patients. This means we need to frame the needs of the health system so they align with the needs of the patient and talk more about how we can all work to meet those needs together. Interestingly, when we talk about it this way, we shift from brand management to relationship management. This corresponds with a shift from patients as passive recipients of our care—and our messaging—to collaborators in improving their own health and the health of others in their community.
Diamant: Smart Patients appears to be a mission-based brand that focuses on communal, user-generated education. When you consider growth, what goals do you have for the platform? Could you ultimately use data from the site to monitor health patterns and better inform health choices? Or do you prefer that the site stay rooted in peer-to-peer sharing?
Zeiger: I think that Big Data has an important role in the future of healthcare. But there are lots of people focusing on that and not enough focusing on the experience and knowledge in patients’ heads. We’re much more interested in connecting people with other people who can help them learn. I think this has massive potential—especially when it happens in the context of a network, where different individuals can contribute different pieces of knowledge, and the community can also help a given patient put it all together in a way that’s most relevant to that patient’s context.
In terms of growth, we’re seeing a ton of interest from medical centers both in oncology and across others service lines like heart failure, obesity and neurological disease.
Diamant: Obviously privacy is a hot button topic, but research also shows that many people are comfortable sharing their personal health data when it can be used to help others or to help themselves make more informed decisions. What’s the company’s stance on member data?
Zeiger: It’s a huge responsibility to handle people’s health data. Our goal is to connect people with each other—and that actually has very little to do with data. We analyze the data to identify common trends or questions like what patients wish they knew earlier in their health journey. We also help our partners learn from patients about specific issues, but that’s more about explicitly asking for their perspective on topics like improving the patient experience in the emergency department.
Diamant: Similarly, does Smart Patients feel a responsibility regarding the medical accuracy of what gets shared on the site? Do you have concerns about misinformation, even when members have the best intentions?
Zeiger: The quality of the conversations is critical, and I think it’s impossible to get this exactly right. We don’t pretend that we’re domain experts. Instead, we focus on creating a culture that is both respectful and pro-science, so the community itself is most responsible for maintaining quality and pointing out misinformation—and learning from the discussion. I believe a well-run community can do that better than any single expert.
Diamant: How does your collaboration with The National Cancer Institute and The Colon Cancer Alliance support your mission and expand the reach of Smart Patients?
Zeiger: We were honored that Vice President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot team asked us to help, given our experience helping cancer patients learn from each other about clinical trials. We’ve been able to advise the National Cancer Institute as they provide better and better information about trials to the public and we’re also using their trial information to make it even easier for interested patients to find user-friendly information about trials.
For us, it’s all about conversations. And that’s what makes our work with the Colon Cancer Alliance so exciting. Not only is our collaboration making it easier for people to find colorectal cancer trials, but we’re also helping patients and families have conversations with others patients who have knowledge and experience relevant to trials. There’s nothing like learning from someone who has been down a similar path—especially if they’re a little ahead of you on the journey. And for those of us running healthcare systems or designing new services, learning from those patients is critical if we want to be truly patient-centered.
This interview originally appeared on brandchannel.