Patient opinion leader

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Patient opinion leaders (POL), also called patient advocates, are individuals who are well versed in a disease, either as patients themselves or as caretakers, and share their knowledge on the particular disease with others.

This term is gaining widespread popularity among patients, healthcare providers and even the pharmaceutical industry,[citation needed] either through print media or through online blogs and forums. Individuals who have tested all the options in a particular disease become leaders in providing information about the disease and the outcomes of the treatment options. Such POLs have significant influence on readers who are either suffering from a disease or taking care of a diseased individual.[citation needed]


Internet social groups and online forums are popular for gaining and spreading knowledge about various aspects of science, day-to-day activities, and medicine. The impact on the medical and pharmaceutical fields has been significant as more people look to online resources for solutions related to a wide variety of disorders. Opinions obtained from online resources impact medications chosen, the type of treatment opted for, the healthcare providers chosen and related aspects. People who suffer from chronic disorders and have undergone a variety of treatments often share their experiences over the Internet. Newly diagnosed patients tend to look to experienced others for advice on treatment options. There are innumerable websites and social communities on the Internet that allow people to discuss their symptoms and questions with others.

Key roles[edit]

  • Providing information about disorders from a patient's viewpoint
  • Offering recognition and emotional support to other patients
  • Offering guidance about treatment options, healthcare providers, hospitals and clinics, and even insurance

A systemic review by Doumit et al. in 2011 concluded that opinion leaders are individuals who are likeable and knowledgeable. Such POLs can have an influence on health care providers and may help persuade them to use evidence-based therapies or medications in the management of other patients.[1]

Internet use for health information[edit]

A survey conducted by iCrossing, a digital marketing company in the US, in 2007 reported that digital media does play a role in many aspects of the healthcare industry. It was noted that healthcare consumers look to online social media to obtain information and share experiences with fellow patients on topics that directly affect their healthcare choices. The survey reported that 59% of adults used online resources to obtain health and wellness information at that time.[2]

Sources used to get health and wellness information

Women look to their physicians for information to a far greater extent than men do (61 to 48 percent). However, women are also more likely than men to consult Internet resources and use a wide variety of resources to manage their health.

Importance of sources influencing prescription medication decision

Information about the sources people go to while making decisions on prescription medications clearly shows the influence of digital media and other patients. About 47% percent of individuals considered someone else suffering from the same condition as having a very important role in making decisions about prescription medications. Another 45% stated that the role of support groups or disease associations was very important. However, the physician shares the highest regard as 58% suggested that a physician had an extremely important role in choosing prescription medications.

With the size of the Internet-savvy population increasing, the number of individuals looking at the Internet as a primary source for first hand information about any type of query is also on the rise. Healthcare options are widely being tested across social groups, and patient opinion leaders are playing a key role in the treatment options being chosen by other people. About 23% of the individuals in the study surfed the Internet more than twice a week for healthcare-related information.

Patient opinion leaders can play a significant role in influencing healthcare options chosen by others. Such POLs have witnessed or suffered the symptoms of the disease, have realised the outcomes of various treatment options personally and can impress their views onto other patients and caretakers.

The POLs may be seen as an alternative mode of marketing of pharmaceutical products by providing information about drugs and their outcomes. However, the role of doctors and other healthcare providers still remains a vital part of prescription patterns and greatly influences the consumption of prescribed medications.


Patient opinion leaders (POL) are well versed about their disorder and can influence the decision making of others with their writing. With the number of computer literate people on the rise, POLs are being viewed as a new source for marketing in the pharmaceutical industry.[citation needed] Marketing has reached new avenues and pharma companies are also looking out for newer, faster and catchy approaches that can boost their sales. POLs may be a promising option for the pharma companies in the net-savvy world.[citation needed]

The patient opinion leaders can be sufferers of some chronic illnesses or may be caregivers who have gone through a lot during the course of the illness. Numerous blogs written by individuals considered as POLs are visited by thousands of people who either are suffering from similar disorders or are caring for their dear ones.

One of the bloggers is the author of the blog called six until me. One of the popular diabetes blogs, it attracts about 50,000 visitors per month.[citation needed] Readers often ask for opinions and advice about the treatments they are undergoing or are about to undergo. POLs offer advice about various aspects of treatment that ranges from choosing a healthcare provider to the type of medication to be consumed.

Numerous patients and caregivers who are Internet-savvy often look for opinions or reviews about a treatment option being offered to them. Such individuals are not satisfied with the explanation provided to them by their doctors, nurses or pharmacists and look for an account about the outcome of the treatment or drug from an individual who is undergoing a similar treatment. Patient reviews are sought more commonly than drug reviews provided by the pharma companies.

The survey conducted by iCrossing has been used as a landmark among the pharma marketing circles for promoting Internet marketing.[2] It has revealed the importance of the POLs in the modern world. Although physicians are the most reliable source of information about medications and treatment options, almost 63% of the individuals surveyed reported that other individuals suffering from similar disorders had a major role in decision making about prescription medications. These results reflect the impact of the POLs on patients who are consuming or will be consuming medications or drugs to treat their disorders.

With the advent of blogs and forums, individuals suffering from chronic disorders have found a way to share their experience and vent their frustrations about the things that go wrong during treatment. The iCrossing survey further revealed that about 60% of all the individuals surveyed considered Internet resources (such as blogs, forums, and websites) for obtaining information about various disorders and treatment options. About 23% of all these individuals surfed through the Internet for health-related information more than twice a week.

  • Providing drug reviews
  • Promoting the drug directly
  • Influencing their readers about the treatment options
  • Provide a feed back to the pharma companies about the drugs such as pricing, packaging, adverse effects and availability in local stores

While the POLs can be considered as a newer approach for marketing drugs there are a few hitches that may affect this strategy. These can include:

  • Existing rules and guidelines about direct marketing of drugs in the country or state may oppose this method.
  • Doctors and other healthcare providers are still considered as the most reliable sources of information; working in collaboration with POLs may be difficult.
  • POLs offer advice based on the cases they have faced and can demand evidence for promoting a new drug.[clarification needed]
  • POLs must be shown that they are cared about and the health of these POLs and others is the main concern of the pharmaceutical companies before they promote a drug.
  • POLs may fade out soon if Internet users begin to realise that POLs are being used as a marketing technique.[citation needed]
  • False implications about being a POL may need the pharma companies to invest first in identifying the credibility of the POL before hiring the POL.[citation needed]

Patient opinion leaders can be considered a new way of promoting the use of various drugs.[citation needed] Areas of concern include local laws about marketing and collaborations between the POLs and healthcare providers. Further, the long-term survival of this method would in large part depend on the ability of the POLs to keep consumers glued to their blogs without being identified as marketing agents.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Flodgren, G; Parmelli, E; Doumit, G; Gattellari, M; O'Brien, MA; Grimshaw, J; Eccles, MP (Aug 2011). Eccles, Martin P, ed. "Local opinion leaders: effects on professional practice and health care outcomes". Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 8 (8): CD000125. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD000125.pub4. PMID 21833939. 
  2. ^ a b Elkin, Noah (January 2008). "How America searches: health and wellness" (PDF). iCrossing. Archived from the original (PDF) on 5 January 2015. Retrieved April 14, 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Primedsys Webspace research vertical.
  • Mark Krueger & Associates, Inc. The Wisdom of Crowds and Social Innovation in the Rare Disease Community. A presentation to: EURORDIS May 9, 2009.
  • Williamson, Charlotte (14 November 1998). "The rise of doctor-patient working groups". BMJ. 317: 1374–1377. doi:10.1136/bmj.317.7169.1374. PMC 1114254Freely accessible. PMID 9812941. 
  • Bunny Ellerin, InterbrandHealth New York. Six Ways Pharma Marketers Can Use Social Media. (first published in Pharmaceutical Executive, March 2009).
  • Manhattan Research. Opinion leader roundtable: five trends impacting consumer & physician e-marketing.
  • Ellerin, Bunny (15 March 2009). "Activated Patients, Part 2". Pharma 2.0. Archived from the original on 29 March 2009. 
  • Heilferty, Catherine McGeehin (July 2009). "Toward a theory of online communication in illness: concept analysis of illness blogs". Journal of Advanced Nursing. 65 (7): 1539–47. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2648.2009.04996.x. PMID 19457009.