Whether we are struggling with personal health issues or going through a global pandemic, health information is crucial to modern life. Health information underlies many, if not all, decisions made by both healthcare professionals and patients in the healthcare setting, particularly when it comes to decision-making on treatments.

Healthcare decisions don’t take place in a vacuum. They result from different factors like individual characteristics, the context of a specific health condition, the availability of knowledge, etc.

Therefore, there is great variety in the degree to which people want to know about their health condition, engage with information, and participate in healthcare decision-making processes. This spectrum of behavior can be explained by the notion of health orientation and health information behavior.

How can pharmaceutical companies improve outcomes by exploring this behavioral spectrum?

Pharmaceutical marketers always strive to better understand what drives HCP and patient decisions. These are the critical insights needed to develop communication and messaging strategies that resonate with both audiences. However, to optimize outcomes in today’s context, it’s vital to investigate a new dimension of healthcare decision-making: how the changing health and information environment influences the thinking and decision-making of HCPs and patients.

Introducing the concept of health orientation

Understanding health information behavior by patients is both important and impactful, for health information often has concrete and real-world effects and health outcomes.
Consider these two healthcare scenarios:

  1. A young mother is diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Determined to not let her condition have too much impact on her life and that of her children, she sets out to actively look for information on the condition and all available treatments. She joins a Facebook online support group and subscribes to popular diabetes newsletters full of patient resources.
  2. The second patient, a man in his early sixties, has just been diagnosed with prostate cancer. It is a shocking revelation, and he feels like he’s on an emotional rollercoaster. He knows there is a lot of information online about cancer, but doesn’t want to become even more anxious and worried. Instead, he relies on the advice, guidance and decision-making of the specialist in the hospital. All information this man receives will come from his physician and nurse.

In these two patients, we see two ends of the health information behavior spectrum: how active versus how passive a person is when it comes to dealing with (information about) their medical condition.

Factors impacting involvement and engagement with health information

One’s individual attitude towards health, the level of involvement in personal health management, medical decision-making, and engagement with health information are shaped by many factors including:

  • Individual characteristics and demographics, such as age, gender, education level, and income.
  • Social context, socio-economic status (social standing or class).
  • Health status and previous experience with health services.
  • Literacy level: not just traditional literacy (i.e., being able to read and understand text), but also media, computer, health, and medical literacy.

The above factors contribute to attitudes, beliefs and motivations towards health information and come together in the concept of health orientation.

There are four aspects to health orientation:

  1. Health consciousness – the extent to which health concerns are integrated into a person’s daily activities. Health-conscious individuals are more oriented towards wellness and hold positive attitudes toward preventive measures like exercising and eating healthy.
  2. Health-oriented beliefs – the specific perceptions held by individuals about health behaviors such as eating healthy, exercising, and so forth.
  3. Health activities – health-oriented individuals are more likely to engage in healthy activities than others.
  4. Health information orientation – the extent to which someone is willing to seek health information.

A new view on patient segmentation: The spectrum of health orientation

Low levels of health orientation

Studies have found that generally, people with lower socioeconomic status are likely to exhibit lower levels of health orientation. They tend to be less interested in proactively taking care of their health, are less likely to actively seek out health information, whilst being more likely to follow their physician without much discussion or asking questions. People with low health orientations are more likely to obtain health information incidentally and passively via television or radio. Or they choose to ignore health information altogether.

High levels of health orientation

Conversely, individuals with high levels of health orientation likely take active, good care of their health and well-being. These individuals pursue a healthy lifestyle and educate themselves by seeking out health information. They might make use of a broad range of information sources (face-to-face, online, other media). In case of health issues, people with high levels of health orientation are likely to come prepared (having looked up health information) to the doctor consult, asking questions and actively participating in the decision-making process.

The notion of health orientation can help you understand the great variety between individual patients and patient segments, as it relates to their awareness, engagement and participation in the healthcare decision-making processes. These health orientation insights, while valuable on their own, are also an important indicator of different health information behavior.

What is health information behavior?

Information behavior describes both active and passive modes of engaging with and using information. Tom Wilson, one of the eminent researchers in the field, defines it as:

“the totality of human behavior in relation to sources and channels of information, including both active and passive information seeking, and information use.”

In other words, information behavior consists of both intentional and unintentional engagement with information, as well as avoiding behavior.

Three types of information behavior have been studied:

  1. Active seeking, or searching, refers to the intentional, goal-oriented act of actively finding information in response to a perceived trigger or information need or want.
  2. Passive scanning, also known as encountering or information exposure, is the non-purposeful and unintentional acquisition of information through exposure to routinely used sources of information. Scanning behavior plays a significant role in how we engage with information, as we more often scan information than actively seek it out.
  3. Avoiding is an intentional and common non-seeking behavior, which stems from various underlying psychological, situational, and motivational factors. Avoiding information might, for instance, help reduce anxiety and information overload or help the patient to remain optimistic and maintain boundaries between their health condition and daily life.

Key takeaways: The importance of health information behavior insights for pharma

Health information behavior insights not only reveal when an individual might actively seek, be receptive to, or avoid information throughout their patient journey. These behavioral insights also indicate where and how they engage with health information.

Consider the significant opportunities this type of deep, granular understanding can create for your marketing, communications, and channel strategies!

Embedding health information behavior into your market research strategy can provide both a nuanced and more detailed perspective of the patient journey. The specific health information insights, including the touchpoints and levels of health orientation, can paint a more accurate picture of the healthcare decision-making process. By considering health information behaviors, preferences, needs, and wants, you can better tailor information to specific patient types and segments.

The SKIM healthcare team has embarked on an ambitious project to harness the knowledge of health information in academic literature, together with our decades of healthcare expertise and robust analytical frameworks.

Are you looking to deepen your understanding of patient engagement for a successful product launch? Check out our latest blog on how SKIM’s unique approach can make a difference. Read the blog here!

Can’t wait for the next blog? Reach out to schedule a consultation with the SKIM Health Information Behavior team.

This blog is based on the doctoral dissertation In Sickness And In Health: A Study Of Health Information Behavior And Use Among Flemish Middle-Aged And Older Adults, submitted by the author to Ghent University, Belgium, in early 2021.