Despite the surge in digital health resources, the consumer journey from ailment to recovery remains largely non-digital.
According to a report by the London-based research and strategy consultancy Populus, few people are buying health products online and even fewer are using healthcare apps to manage conditions.
While consumers are happy to use online resources to research conditions, this only forms a small part of the consumer journey - and digital resources rarely feature as a purchase channel in healthcare.
Pharmacy still ahead of technology
According to Hamish Asser, director of brand research at Populus, it’s easy to believe we’re in the middle of a revolution in digital healthcare, driven by smart device ownership and the many health apps available, but this research proves otherwise.
The good news for pharmacy is that the report shows that technology has not overtaken it as a point of call for health advice and support.
Around a fifth of people with a health condition seek advice from a pharmacist and a similar number go to their doctor. For healthcare, the online world simply doesn’t deliver relief.
The research also found significant variation in terms of treatment paths associated with different minor ailments.
For example, the public is 10 times more likely to seek advice from a nurse, GP or doctor when suffering from a skin condition (36 per cent) than a lip problem (3 per cent).
Around a fifth (19 per cent) of the public seek out information online regarding musculoskeletal injuries and skin conditions (17 per cent), but just 3 per cent do the same for minor injuries - highlighting the relevance of the urgency of the condition.
Pharmacy in its different forms was a popular source of advice, with some 20 per cent of people seeking advice from a pharmacist.
This rises to 23 per cent the first time they experience a problem, highlighting the role pharmacy plays in where to go for healthcare information.
Much more could be done by pharmacists to help people in need of healthcare advice, according to Professor Mahendra Patel of the RPS English Pharmacy Board.
Most people live within 20 minutes’ walking distance of a community pharmacy, he says, so this statistic shows there is an under-utilisation of a valuable resource that is accessible and always willing and free to offer their professional and clinical expertise and knowledge.
Professor Patel suggests that, perhaps, many people are still not recognising the valuable services community pharmacies offer, and asks whether there is a need for greater awareness and better understanding of what pharmacists do, or whether it is just a cultural change in terms of attitudes, behaviours and practice that needs to be addressed.
Maybe it is a gender issue, too. When women have healthcare problems they seek advice from a pharmacy, with 39 per cent of women visiting their pharmacy about feminine health issues.
According to professor Patel, society is growing much more open about discussing such issues and, similarly, people are getting more proactive in going to their pharmacist for assistance, as demonstrated by this statistic.
Consultation areas in pharmacies have gone a significant way in helping to offer reassurance that all concerns will be handled with sensitivity and in confidence, and will also have contributed to encouraging women to discuss health issues with their pharmacist.
While men, generally, tend to be more reluctant to seek advice about their health concerns, consultation areas in community pharmacies are well placed to offer the necessary privacy to men as well.
A surprising element of the report is that it reveals that even though millennials are a key consumer group that increasingly relies on digital and online tools, when it comes to healthcare they are not converting to online advice and are “highly sceptical” of such sources of information. Instead, the research shows that the younger the respondents are, the more likely they are to rely on family and friends when deciding what to buy.