Building Improved Healthcare Access, One BRIC at a Time

Like many cyclical trends, emerging markets have been in and out of focus for nearly a decade. When the developed economies faltered in the 2008 financial crisis, the world redirected its gaze to emerging countries as the hope for the future. Ever since, business leaders have adjusted to the global economic shifts and reframed their corporate strategies to include a greater emphasis on these emerging and expanding markets.

The global business community has become fascinated by the development and potential of emerging markets, specifically Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC), and rightfully so. The sheer volume of these four developing countries alone should pique the interest of any healthcare marketer. As a group, the four emerging nations boast 42% of the world’s population,1 all of which are in some way connected to the healthcare marketplace and engaging with the brands that are critical to successful healthcare delivery—either as patients, caregivers or healthcare providers.

Opportunities for Brands to Position

New technological advances and investment in healthcare services present a host of opportunities for new brands to position themselves in the BRIC marketplace. In terms of digital access, BRIC countries are the fastest growing markets for mobile phone adoption and are mobile-first when it comes to getting on the Web. These numbers will only continue to grow with the increasing use of smartphones by young adults, particularly in China. eMarketer forecasts that by 2018, 91% of 18- to 24-year-olds and about 89% of 25- to 34-year-olds in China will use a smartphone.2 This provides a new and profitable channel for brands to connect with consumers.

However, as with any smart and strategic communications effort, marketers must be sure to keep the behaviors and needs of the end user in mind. While this new digital access provides opportunity to further connect existing healthcare tools with consumers, it has also created an overload of information that can overwhelm. Marketers must use their creative discretion to carefully pick which parts of the Western healthcare system to implement on these blank canvases—and which ones to leave out. This includes the smart design of mobile applications to connect consumers with brands and develop a robust mobile health experience.

Connecting Consumers with Providers

Brands trying to enter BRIC markets have an immediate opportunity in the mobile app market. Access to healthcare professionals is more difficult in BRIC markets than in Western markets due to distance and accessibility. As a result, patients and doctors in these countries are more likely to use mHealth (defined as mobile health or the practice of medicine supported by mobile technology) than people in developed countries, and are turning to mobile options not as an alternative, but often as the primary and most affordable form of care. According to PWC research, 59% of patients in emerging markets use mHealth, compared to only 35% in developed markets.3 Bringing requisite medical care directly to patients, while a daunting task, is becoming easier and easier through the use of mobile apps.

Alongside the proliferation of mobile phones and the burgeoning cultural willingness to use them as a medium through which to address personal health, citizens in emerging markets, and specifically BRIC countries, share another trait: They have historically higher incidence of preventable health problems. As their economies develop, these populations are increasingly suffering from “first world,” environmentally driven, non-communicable conditions such as hearing loss, migraines, asthma, osteoarthritis, depressive disorders and diabetes mellitus.

As marketers we can learn from implementing mHealth in first world countries to help BRIC markets better build healthier and more mobile-enabled societies. For instance, New York City hospitals used mobile technology to remotely monitor elderly patients in order to reduce how often they had to visit the hospital. Similarly, AsthmaMD is a mobile app that helps patients better manage their asthma. These types of applications are ripe for the mobile-savvy populations of BRIC nations. Patients, through a basic education on how to implement these simple yet lifesaving strategies, could start overcoming these preventable conditions before they become pervasive population health issues, allowing individuals to enjoy longer and healthier lives.

Reaching the Right Audience

In order to rise above the sheer volume of information available on the Web, it is essential that marketers and communicators generate relevant and appropriate content for their user base. Regarding the types of apps that should be created, a Journal of Medical Internet Research article specified that an effective mHealth app should work without an Internet connection, be geared towards the general public, and assist its users with their health needs rather than merely inform and educate.4 Marketers should take this into consideration when designing new tools to ensure they have interactive elements that will engage consumers and create a dialogue and relationship between the medium and user.

Reaching the right audience also means keeping the end user and their needs at the center of how mHealth tools are developed. Information should be relevant and presented as bite-sized content, like little “snacks,” making it easy to understand and act upon. Those working in BRIC countries can learn from Western marketers by understanding the need to simply and clearly communicate a tool’s capabilities. For example, digital assets should be tailored to the device on which they will be consumed, whether it be on a smartphone, tablet or desktop. Due to shorter attention spans, marketers only have a few seconds to engage potential new users, making an easily accessible and user-friendly design paramount.

Implementing Best Practices and Overcoming Challenges

The influx of Western marketers into the emerging markets allows for the introduction of best practice and will give rise to new engagement trends. One effective Western model that has been implemented in BRIC nations is the call center. One entrepreneur in Bangladesh partnered a health call center with a local telecommunications operator to provide free access to licensed physicians by a simple call or text.5 The center served over three million mobile patients in its first six years. Another company, mDhil in India, sends three instructive health texts messages to their customers for the affordable cost of one rupee per day. Despite its simplicity, this effective service gained 250,000 paid subscribers in its first two years.

While call centers and educational texts are creative ways to boost a nation’s general well-being, marketers and communicators looking to improve health in emerging markets face a few obstacles. The first is the wide variety of the technology. For instance, one study of mHealth in China discovered an encouraging 85% accuracy rate for tele-consultation using a mobile phone camera. However, this innovative approach only works with bigger phone screens, high camera resolution, and a reliable network service to transmit the data. Similarly, the mDhil texting service in India, while a huge success, has its limitations too. Its messages were restricted by character limits, language barriers, literacy rates and the lack of technical support in rural areas. Privacy of information is also an issue in communities where phones are shared between several people and messages contain sensitive health information.

Marketers in BRIC nations can also learn from the mistakes of established markets. There has been criticism in Western markets toward mobile apps that guarantee clinical solutions but fail to deliver on their promises. For example, a study published in the Journal of Medical Technology found that most simple pedometer apps fail to accurately count steps.6 In more extreme cases, consumers turning to apps as a replacement for clinical treatment might be risking their lives. A University of Pittsburgh Medical Center study found that several commonly used skin cancer diagnosis apps missed at least 1 in 3 melanomas.7 Marketers must be transparent about when they are offering a useful health tool and when they are providing effective, sanctioned, clinical care.

Standing On the Shoulders of Giants

Marketers and communicators should not feel intimidated by the task before them. As foreign investment continues to rise, so will the need for strategic communication and the transformation of skills and technologies, developed in the U.S. and European markets, to create into successful campaigns tailored to the unique needs of the emerging marketplace. Creative professionals, marketers and communicators have a critical role to play in selecting the right human and physical capital to improve healthcare around the world.









  • Ash Kuchel

    Ash Kuchel is Global Group President at Publicis Healthcare Communications Group. Bringing over 25 years of exclusive healthcare industry experience with a focus on the continued growth of global business, Ash leads Publicis Healthcare agencies in the EU and APAC, including Digitas Health LifeBrands, Discovery Worldwide and Razorfish Healthware.