Gods in White or All Just Hype? Three Strategies for Healthcare Communication in the Digital Age

Digitalization hasn’t spared the healthcare industry. Today, new, digitally-driven treatment methods and preventative techniques aim to make society’s most common ailments a thing of the past. But the reality is: we’re far away from a humanitarian utopia. For example, more than half of the German population is overweight; tendencies are rising. And the healthcare has long been swallowed by cost pressure. Physiological and psychological health remain leading global challenges.

Healthcare systems are at the forefront of the problem, bleeding slowly under rising costs. In Germany, such costs already amount to nine percent of the country’s GDP. Simultaneously the demand for new, innovative solutions that enable long-term cost reduction is higher than ever before, even if these innovations require short-term investments to hit the ground running. A shift in paradigm is key to overcoming today’s challenges, most importantly a change in people’s minds and mindsets. This includes patients as well as physicians, insurance providers, pharmaceutical companies and public health authorities alike.

What this paradigm shift looks like? With three theories for improved healthcare communication, we think the challenge can be approached:

1. Companies need to learn to think digitally

While the notion of a “healthcare system” is trusted and over a century old, “sickness system” would be a much more accurate termination. After all, the system is concentrated on sickness – not health – more than anything else. Though insurance companies do their best to promote preventative behavior, it is everyone’s own responsibility to live, develop and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

This is where a gap forms between patients and protagonists of the system; in some ways it’s a fatal difference in opinions: when it comes to personal health, people don’t wait for their next doctor’s appointment or brochure from their insurance company. They use all mediums and channels available to them – especially the internet, of course.

However, physicians, insurance providers and pharmaceutical companies tend to operate with tunnel vision. They hold true to top-down communication, falsely determined by a self-proclaimed monopoly of competency and information. In reality, people form their opinions by gathering information from a plethora of relevant sources. As such, organizations looking to truly reach consumers need to re-think and re-calibrate their messaging and, most importantly, the channels they use to communicate with target groups.

Baby steps are apparent across the board, but the majority of organizations have a hard time keeping up with the pace of technological advancements. And the bad news is: there is no simpler, more easily adaptable solution. Digital strategies cannot be treated as supplemental. Digitalization is predicated by an organization’s ability to question its own motives and structures and, more importantly, the willingness to make structural changes. Digital thinking needs to be an integral element of organizational strategy.

2. The former Gods of the healthcare become partners at eye level

“Gods in white” – for a long time, that’s what doctors were perceived as. Untouchable luminaries and institutions of ultimate knowledge and skill. But that kind of portrayal is eroding. The flood of information on the internet, with its thousands of websites, platforms and forums, gives consumers a smorgasbord of new alternatives. And while the authority of physicians is seldom questioned, digital competition has made an impact nonetheless. If not the doctors themselves, healthcare organizations have lost hold of their monopoly.

For patients and customers, this doesn’t necessarily guarantee more or higher quality: The sheer amount of (sometimes contradictory) sources and information in the internet energizes uncertainty. Plus, it leads to the development of premature, stubborn opinions – opinions that, more often than not, are confused with genuine knowledge and experience. Regardless, physicians and healthcare organizations are faced with the reality of a changing, more complex mentality among target audiences. And they must learn to deal with it.

For those effected by it, loss of authority is a scary threat. But with each threat comes an opportunity. Be daring enough to throw old role models overboard and shift from God to partner, and the future is yours.

That means nothing less than a massive transfer of competencies and positioning among key players in the game: the minute healthcare organizations, public officials and, most importantly, physicians take their clientele’s demands for information seriously, a new quality of care be established. New opportunities in counsel and leadership become a reality, catering to patients’ new shift in orientation and satisfying their emotional needs.

3. Healthcare? Get your facts straight!

The term “Content Marketing” plays an increasingly important role among dialog between consumers or patients in the healthcare sector. Advertising- and media agencies, as well as other companies, produce content that is targeted to online consumers and intends to influence them. Unfortunately, the crux is that content isn’t always content. In healthcare, communicating genuine, factual information is crucial to creating a true bond with important target groups. Content that is primarily focused on advertising does nothing to help the already blurred understanding among key audiences.

In fact, it throws a shadow over not only the addressee, but also the reputation of content’s originator. And because we’re talking about the health and vitality of human beings, the negative effect is all the more destructive.

Staying true to facts is important for the entire healthcare spectrum, especially for fitness-, nutrition- and wellness-brands. Messaging needs to be based on relatable, clear facts that are easy to comprehend. Nobody should underestimate consumers or patients; generally speaking, they are well informed and know what they want. They’re quick to notice brands that make plausible claims and intend to truly make positive contributions to the health of society as a whole. Once a brand has been labeled untrustworthy, it’ll snowball through social media networks in the blink of an eye. And the internet doesn’t forget, by the way. Repairing a reputation takes forever and is expensive.


In today’s day and age, communicators in in the health-, fitness and well-being arenas have a lot more requirements to fulfill than they did just a few years ago. The flood of digital information has spread far beyond any geographical boundaries and has caused the existence of a very informed, but very confused consumer; one that demands to stay informed with genuine, relatable content. To reach them, healthcare organizations need to step outside of their comfort zones and turn into partners for their customers. Those who understand that digitalization requires a digital transformation of the entire organization will be able to create a long-term, sustainable agility that is required to survive in an ever-changing, exciting market.

Marco Malavasi is Vice President at FleishmanHillard and works in the practise of Creative Strategy & Innovation in Düsseldorf and Frankfurt as Senior Strategist.

Nadine Dusberger is Senior Vice President at FleishmanHillard and works in the practise HealthCare in Frankfurt as Head of HealthCare.

Grit Arndt is Managing Director at FleishmanHillard and works in the practise Consumer Brands in Frankfurt