What We’ll Take Back from the Trade Show

Earlier this year, the best and brightest minds and the biggest and best-funded companies of the consumer electronics world gathered in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), an annual event that lets companies around the world trot out their latest and greatest wares. TVs were even larger, tablets even thinner, and “wearable” technology that combines the cool world of electronic gadgets with the cachet of fashion were reportedly all the rage in Vegas. I know of several marketers who attended this show, often those in the digital and integrated marketing groups of pharma marketing departments, and it’s a good thing that they make this annual trek. They’re responsible for keeping up with trends in the digital world, and ensuring that their companies know what technology is available now as they also plan for what’s coming in the future.

My colleagues at LDM Group and I don’t attend CES, but we’ll be making our annual pilgrimage to our own high tech show in just a week or two, at the HIMSS14 Annual Conference & Exhibition (held in Orlando this year, a welcome break from the cold temps we’ve had in the Northeast as I prepare this column). HIMSS is where the digerati from the Health IT world meet every year, the equivalent for our industry of CES for consumer electronics, and more than a few people from pharma will also be taking in the sights and sounds and walking the aisles of the conference (be sure to stop by and say hello, of course).

We won’t see much in the way of TVs that double as refrigerators or hats that serve as Wi-Fi hotspots at HIMSS (CES might be a different story), but new developments in EMRs will be front and center along with new tools that cover the gamut of technology in healthcare. It will be almost an entire week of immersion into Health IT, and we will feast on it as much as anyone, while proudly taking the wraps off a new offering or two of our own for current and prospective clients.

More Than Just Technology

But all this focus on technology has me slightly worried. Now, don’t misunderstand—I am at the front of the pack when it comes to believing in the power of technology to transform healthcare. Our company exists because of Health IT, and we proudly have our names on many important patents that show our interest and dedication to the field. But at the end of the day, no matter how cool our gadgets or how powerful our computers, this is still an industry that comes down to something more important than the technology. It comes down to the people—patients, providers and caregivers—that give us a reason to exist. And I’m at least a little bit concerned that sometimes our industry gets enamored with the technology to the point that we forget why we needed it in the first place.

Let’s take one powerful Health IT tool as an example: Patient portals. In case you’re not familiar with them, patient portals allow a patient to gain secure, online access to their medical records via a service sponsored by their provider’s practice, or in some cases, the patient’s larger health system or hospital. I am a big fan of patient portals, and believe they are absolutely an important part of the way providers and patients can interact. And as a company, we can certainly help our clients use these powerful tools to connect with patients in many practices. But are patient portals what we normally recommend as part of the foundation for a brand’s EHR engagement programs? No, they are not, and for good reason.

As noted in a JAMA article1 last month, one estimate is that 20% of physician offices have “live” patient portals. That’s a great advance for healthcare, but it still leaves 80% without this valuable tool, at least today. This same article noted that an estimated 72% of office-based physicians now use EHRs (up from 48% in 2009), so there is clearly a gap between EHR-using providers and portal-using patients. Because it takes time and effort for patients to adopt new services, far less than 20% of patients actually use portals in the offices that have them. So when clients approach us first with a request to build a portal program, or any program—simply because it uses a new technology—we’re likely to say “Sure, but let’s first talk about your overall goals.”

It’s Still About the People—And Our Priorities as Marketers

The same problem frankly exists with technologies that are not exclusive to the EHR world, such as mobile devices. As an industry we are fascinated with mobile and there are many great healthcare programs that make use of mobile technology. But IMS Health reported in October of last year that more than half of all healthcare apps had been downloaded (much less actually used) fewer than 500 times. Think about the number of suppliers and agencies recommending a new app for almost every pharma brand, and that statistic sounds ominous for many of the patient engagement efforts currently underway.

So have I suddenly become some sort of Luddite, advocating a return to spinning wheels and buggies? Hardly. But I think we need to reconsider the order of our priorities as we think about how we will best use technology to serve patients, providers and other stakeholders in the healthcare system.

As I see it, the objective should never be to figure out a way to use the latest technologies in our marketing programs, but rather to make the best use of technology to serve and engage patients, providers and caregivers. The order in which we prioritize these things is critical, and keeping that order in mind as we set goals for our programs, objectives for our marketing and technology personnel, and direction for our agencies is vital to the success of our industry. EHRs will of course be a major part of any relevant marketing program given the overwhelming number of providers that now use them. But how we use EHRs is something that requires a bit more planning than just focusing on the latest technology because we saw it at a trade show.


1.  Sarkar U, and Bates DW. “Care Partners and Online Patient Portals.” JAMA (January 6, 2014). doi:10.1001/jama.2013.285825.

2.  “IMS Health Identifies Opportunities for Mobile Healthcare Apps to Drive Patient Engagement, Enhance Delivery of Care.” Published Oct. 20, 2013; Accessed on January 11, 2014 at: http://www.imshealth.com/portal/site/imshealth/menuitem.c76283e8bf81e98f53c753c71ad8c22a/?vgnextoid=0b96ccb4c3402410VgnVCM10000076192ca2RCRD&vgnextchannel=ba11e590cb4dc310VgnVCM100000a48d2ca2RCRD&vgnextfmt=default.

  • Mark Heinold

    Mark Heinold is CEO of PDR, the largest EMR and digital communications network. PDR connects prescribers, pharmacists and patients to improve health outcomes through targeted communications, and is the publisher of the renowned Physicians Desk Reference. PDR delivers health information designed to positively improve health behaviors through a variety of digital, office-based and pharmacy-based channels.


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