It’s Time to Get Personal

The terms “segmentation” and “personalization” are often used interchangeably, but they are not synonymous. If you want to adopt a truly patient-centric approach to your health communication initiatives, what you should be striving for is patient personalization.

It is now well recognized that generic one-size-fits-all approaches to health communication don’t work for most patients. We know that people are more likely to actively and thoughtfully process information if they perceive it to be personally relevant. Personalized messages tend to be retained longer and are more likely to influence behavior. It follows therefore, that if we are seeking to change health behavior over the long term, we need to support patients to process information by providing health messages that they perceive to be personally meaningful. How can pharma get personal with individual patients?

Segmentation and Health Message Targeting

Many of our pharma clients recognize the impact of personally relevant health messages, and often engage market research companies or advertising agencies to help them better understand their patient population so as to guide their patient communication strategies. It’s common for organizations to conduct research to identify group-level similarities among the patient population. This approach typically culminates in the identification of a limited number of patient segments, with each segment defined by a set of shared characteristics, e.g., a combination of fixed demographic and clinical variables, such as gender, age, and disease severity, as well as attitudinal measures.

However, it is increasingly recognized that demographic and clinical factors alone provide only limited information about the many factors that are now known to influence a patient’s health-related behaviors. A greater appreciation of the multitude of influencing variables has led researchers to engage in more sophisticated segmentation strategies and to consider grouping patients in terms of psychological, behavioral, and/or combinations of these and other variables.

Segmentation is not Personalization

Once patient segments are identified, each segment can be targeted with health messages that are designed to resonate with that particular segment. It’s important to realize that regardless of what defines the characteristics of a segment, not everyone in the segment is the same—which is why personalization is key. Simply because people are in the same segment doesn’t mean they have the same beliefs regarding illness and treatment that drive their behavior.

Segmentation is widespread in pharma marketing initiatives, and while it is an incremental advance over the generic one-size-fits-all approach to health communication, it sometimes falls short of positioning the patient as an individual with unique needs. Indeed, the literature on health communication strategies advocates the use of tailoring, where messages are matched to the unique beliefs, attitudes, needs, and references of individuals, over the fundamentally different approach of patient segmentation and message targeting at the group level.1 Equally problematic for the static segmentation approach is the fact that most health behaviors will change over time and new drivers or factors may come into play.

Tailoring Health Messages

While the diversity of patient beliefs, attitudes, needs, and reference points poses problems for segmentation and message targeting, personalization and message tailoring can uniquely address this challenge. Unlike segmentation, where targeted messages are developed to be effective with an entire segment of the population, personalization allows for tailored messages that are customized to each individual. Personalization and the practice of tailoring messaging has been defined as “any combination of strategies and information intended to reach one specific person, based on characteristics that are unique to that person, related to the outcome of interest, and derived from an individual assessment.”2

For our global team of health psychologists, personalization begins with an assessment of the individual on a number of characteristics that are relevant to the behavior under study. These could be any combination of demographic, clinical, psychological, behavioral, or other variables of interest. Individual assessments can be conducted through a variety of channels, including telephone, mail, and online surveys. We then develop computer algorithms to select particular health messages that are most appropriate for an individual based on the outcome of their assessment. Messages are drawn from our message library, which consists of tens, hundreds, or even thousands of messages. These messages are sent to the patient through any number of channels, including web and SMS, or addressed through telephone or face-to-face interactions with a healthcare professional.

We know patient assessments should not be limited to the beginning of a program and may be needed at various time points on the patient journey in order to re-personalize the support that is being offered. Many health-related behaviors, such as treatment adherence, are known to change over time because of a change in the patient’s situation. A truly dynamic approach to personalization will be equipped to detect such changes and adapt the messaging and support in order to optimize self-management.

The effectiveness of a personalization approach is illustrated in a study conducted among asthma patients.3 In this study, patients received their own unique set of tailored SMS messages based on their responses to an initial assessment that elicited their beliefs about asthma and asthma preventer medication. The study was conducted as a randomized controlled trial, with the intervention group reporting a significant increase in adherence over the control after only six weeks, a result that was sustained at nine-month follow-up.

In Summary

The key to differentiating segmentation and personalization lies in understanding how each approach conceptualizes the patient. Segmentation positions the patient as a fixed part of a population subgroup and lends itself to the provision of targeted health messages. Personalization, on the other hand, positions the patient as an individual with a unique set of needs that can be elicited in an assessment and then addressed through tailored health messages, which can be delivered in a much more dynamic and adaptive way. Personalization is thus the more patient-centric approach to health communication and is consistent with the broader ethos of modern day healthcare service provision. We are at a point now where both the theory and technology allow us to make patient personalization a marketing reality.


1. Noar, S. M., Grant Harrington, N., & Shemanski Aldrich, R. (2009). “The Role of Message Tailoring in the Development of Persuasive Health Communication Messages.” In C. S. Beck (ed.), Communication Yearbook 33 (pp. 73-133). New York: Routledge.

2. Kreuter, M. W., Strecher, V. J., & Glassman, B. (1999). “One Size Does Not Fit All: The Case for Tailoring Print Materials.” Annuals of Behavioral Medicine, 21(4), 276-283.

3. Petrie, K. J., Perry, K., Broadbent, E. & Weinman, J. (2012). “A Text Message Programme Designed to Modify Patients’ Illness and Treatment Beliefs Improves Self-reported Adherence to Asthma Preventer Medication.” British Journal of Health Psychology, 17(1), 74-84. et al., 2012.

  • John Weinman, PhD

    John Weinman, PhD is Head of Health Psychology at Atlantis Healthcare and Professor of Psychology at King’s College, London. Professor Weinman is recognized as one of the founders of modern health psychology and respected as a preeminent global thought leader in the field. His main research areas are cognition and health, communication and decision-making in healthcare, and self-management and self-regulation in chronic illness.

    • Kate Perry

      Dr. Kate Perry, MSc, PsychD, MNZPB is Director, Behavioral Science at Atlantis Healthcare. A registered psychologist with 20 years experience in the healthcare sector, Dr. Perry is responsible for the development of global evidence-based programs to promote behavior change among individuals living with chronic conditions.


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