ESOMAR Health Conference

The Big Apple was the place for the 2010 ESOMAR Health Conference. During the breaks the appropriate amounts fresh fruits (not including apples though) and herb teas were served. Obviously in the evenings, NY’s recommended restaurants easily made up for this with copious meals and – for some – more BMI-threatening dishes. Honestly, I was actually a bit shocked by the ‘size’ of some health marketers and researchers alike attending this health conference…

In the introduction Finn Raben, the new quick-witted ESOMAR Director General (male, Irish, and not to be mistaken for a cop – US practical joke) revealed that Health Research now accounts for 12% of the total market research investments. The big chunk of this budget is spent on research among health care professionals. Today’s biggest challenge for pharma and health providers is that care is moving out from the clinical environment into patients’ and consumers’ homes, their PCs, their mobile phones… and health research is bound to move there as well.

Rod Falcon, first and most inspiring keynote (Institute for the Future, USA), anticipates that we will soon be tracking people’s moods and biometrics to better understand their medical condition and needs. Reasonably it will take some more time before we all start measuring our blood pressure daily (although my 81-year old grandfather already does!) and upload it online. However, already today user-generated health information can no longer be ignored by the health industry and its research providers.
We may indeed be a couple of years apart from massively uploading proper biometrical data; we already post huge amounts of health conversations online and we do this at critical moments (e.g. when we experience unusual symptoms, when we receive a new diagnosis, after an attack, after a prescription change…). This content is freely available for us, health researchers, to analyze and better understand health management in this new empowered society where patients demand involvement and want to understand more about their (family members’) disorders, diagnoses, and treatment options.
When scraping, analyzing, or tracking their online conversations about illnesses, HCP relations and product use, pharmaceutical companies (including the research agencies that do this on their behalf) obviously have both legal and ethical obligations to report and act upon irregularities such as drugs’ adverse effects. Mind you, this is by far the most obvious reason for many actors not (yet) to engage in observational research online. Other reasons include ‘no interest in patient research whatsoever’ (how much longer can this be justified?) and ‘having no idea about the current research possibilities’ (the conference was a good step forward closing this knowledge gap).
Merz Pharmaceuticals (and The Third Eye) and UCB Pharma (together with Prof. Dr. Niels Schillewaert from InSites Consulting) – first movers to engage in ‘social media netnography research’ in the industry, put their best feet forward on stage to overcome the existing knowledge barrier. With a lot of passion and practical examples they explained how they embraced the insights gathered on social media content and put it to practice in their organizations.
Questions received about the ethics of such ‘big brother’ practices were confidently bounced back to the audience by Rudi Van Campenhout (UCB) and the Merz team: ‘Is it maybe more ethical to know that a lot of questions and frustrations are out there about our brands and products and to just shut our eyes to them? Isn’t it more human to start listening (obviously only on freely accessible platforms!) to understand how we can act upon this in the future?’
Clearly some people in the room remained in doubt (because personally they have never engaged in online conversations about their overweight, cholesterol levels, restless leg, cardiac arrhythmia, hair loss, pregnancy, impaired vision… online? Or because regulatory and pharmaco-vigilance seems barriers too difficult to take?). But fact that our Health 2.0 paper – Social Media as the Central Nervous System for Learning about Epilepsy – received one out of two conference nominations for the ESOMAR Health Excellence Award shows that many minds were opened to these new views!
I would like to end with a quote by Rudi Van Campenhout for the sceptics: ‘I mean it if I say that the Web 2.0 journey was not only insightful, but also very fun (…) it also gave me the opportunity to get to know ESOMAR as an organization and I really liked it.’
Also our Young Research of the Year Annelies Verhaeghe – we also tend to call her our World Champion Research in the category -30 (in years and in BMI), shined on stage presenting her award-winning paper “And they lived happily ever after… – Analyzing user generated content on social media to increase the elderly’s quality-of-life.’ Still not convinced? Just read it!

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