Interactive media signals shift to consumer empowerment

October 1, 2008

Stakeholders are all over the communications map trying to reach their audiences in the high-tech world where they live. Whether they're texting consumers, sending e-cards, creating video games or sharing information via social media, all are working to get the healthcare message out.

Stakeholders are all over the communications map trying to reach their audiences in the high-tech world where they live. Whether they're texting consumers, sending e-cards, creating video games or sharing information via social media, all are working hard to get the healthcare message out.

"We want people to be informed and empowered, and you can't do that today without considering and becoming involved in interactive media," says Erin Edgerton, content lead for interactive media at the Centers for Disease Control's (CDC) division of e-health marketing. "There's been a real shift in power."

Recognizing that, the CDC is taking its message to some seemingly unlikely venues, including online videos, YouTube, Second Life and The Mommy Blogger. The idea is to broaden CDC's traditional reach.

For example, the CDC has had a presence on Whyville, a social space for "tweens" since 2006. Each year during flu season, the CDC sponsors a six-week video that replicates the spread of flu throughout Whyville and encourages players to get a virtual vaccination. Players who don't get vaccinated may log on to find their avatar-their electronic personality-covered in spots and their text peppered with plenty of "Ah-choos."

Sound silly? The first year the CDC sponsored the game some 20,000 players got virtual vaccinations, and during the second year, 40,000 players were virtually vaccinated, including some 1,800 over the age of 50. Although the CDC doesn't know how many of those players were vaccinated in real life, there's no doubt the message promotes awareness.

The CDC isn't alone in exploiting high-tech communication tools. Organizations across the country are finding creative, sometimes off-beat ways to reach audiences of every stripe.

In July, CIGNA announced it is launching an "island" in Linden Lab's Second Life world. Users can walk through 3-D interactive displays with their avatars, play educational games, listen to seminars on nutrition and health, and receive virtual health consultations.

HealthPartners' mascot Petey P.Cup and his syringe sidekick Pokey can be seen on Facebook and YouTube and have even launched their own site to deliver health information and promote the plan's online capabilities, which include same-day test results and immunization records.

Kaiser Permanente's site is laced with video games like "Snacktown Smackdown" and the award-winning "Incredible Adventures of the Amazing Food Detective," designed to combat childhood obesity and promote healthy eating and exercise habits. It also includes Kaiser physician Preston Mering's blog devoted to healthy, seasonal cooking (kp.org/farmersmarketrecipes). Venturing beyond the site, Kaiser began posting its TV ads on YouTube in August, is piloting a program in Southern California that enables physicians and patients to engage in evisits via Webcam, and is studying the use of mobile technologies and text messaging.

"One of the things we have really recognized is that there is no single way to communicate with a member," says Holly Potter, vice president of national media and stakeholder management for Kaiser Permanente.

When it comes to alternative ways of communicating, MCOs agree that cell phones hold tremendous promise for both physiological monitoring and communication. One such application includes remote monitoring for patients with chronic conditions.

AmeriHealth Mercy, a Philadelphia-based Medicaid plan, recently launched a pilot program to provide diabetics with cell phones equipped with glucometers so they can check their blood sugar and relay that information to a data repository by simply hitting a button. Diabetics receive a message in return that tells them about their blood sugar and what they should do. The insurer is likewise exploring the possibility of using cell phones to provide pregnant women who are considered high risk with direct access to their doctors and AmeriHealth's pregnancy management department.

Cell phones can also be used to remind patients about appointments, promote compliance with drug regimens and deliver information and encouragement to help patients manage their health. Disease managers at AllOne Health Group are using cell phones to text members about diabetes, smoking cessation, back injury and heart failure, according to President and CEO William Reed.

"Sending out mail pieces is somewhat ineffective because they tend to get tossed in with the junk mail or read a month later," says Reed. "And there are HIPPA issues with the telephone, so you have to leave a message that is very generic. If you have to communicate specific information, then the member has to call you back and that involves a lot of phone tag. Cell phones don't have those issues."

And unlike TV ads, members don't bypass their cell phone messages.

Shelly Reese is a frequent contributor to MANAGED HEALTHCARE EXECUTIVE. She is based in Ohio.