How search traffic has affected healthcare and how providers can better market their telehealth programs
Perhaps no industry needed to pivot in response to COVID-19 more than healthcare. Stay-at-home orders and COVID-19 fears led patients to delay or stop their medical care. Data from the National Syndromic Surveillance system found that emergency department visits declined 42% during the early COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 quickly became the catalyst for telemedicine and telehealth. It was a solution to prevent symptomatic patients from potentially infecting healthcare workers and other patients. It also became a method of care for patients with urgent or chronic medical conditions.
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The pandemic not only changed healthcare, but it also changed healthcare marketing in many ways. How do providers market a service that was unfamiliar to many patients prior to 2020?
This brief report, compiled from a variety of sources, is intended to provide a broad overview of how search traffic has affected healthcare and importantly, how it may impact the way we receive care in the long-term.
Beginning in early March, internet traffic changed. How much it changed and, in fact, whether or not it increased or decreased, depended on one’s perspective, as some verticals saw marked increases in traffic, while other categories were decimated.
By and large, such changes were predictable. Activities that could be done inside the home (e-commerce, home improvement, etc.) saw immediate increases in traffic, while outside-of-the-home activities (travel, restaurants, etc.) saw strong decreases.
In regard to medical care, we saw fewer “near me” searches in March and April. “Near me” searches usually have local intent, as users are looking to take immediate action (i.e., visit the doctor) based on the information they find. This decline in search interest correlated with lower emergency room visits in the same timeframe.
We saw similar declines in searches for non-emergency medical services. This aligned with practices leveraging telehealth capabilities while their offices were closed.
In short, search traffic dipped for a number of healthcare queries but steadily began to rebound as stay-at-home orders lifted.
Specific Trends: Telehealth
Patients needed a safe way to receive medical care. Providers needed a way to deliver care in spite of stay-at-home orders and office closures.
While telemedicine or telehealth has existed for a number of years, many providers had to launch programs or expand their online services in order to be able to deliver care during COVID-19.
They also needed to educate patients about telehealth and telemedicine, as these were largely unfamiliar terms prior to COVID-19.
The data supports this lack of familiarity. Consider the increase in search volume for the following terms from March 2019 to March 2020, according to SEMrush:
● “Telehealth”: +50%
● “Telemedicine”: +50%
● “What is telemedicine”: +53%
We saw even bigger increases in the number of search results for these keywords:
● “Telehealth” – 38.5 million search results vs. 5.7 million search results last year
● “Telemedicine” – 23.9 million vs. 13.5 million
● “What is telemedicine” – 28.3 million vs. 21.2 million
These changes indicate that more people were searching for this service. In addition, publishers, providers and other sources began to put more information out there about telehealth.
Google Trends also shows that search interest for “telehealth” exploded in March 2020. We’ve since seen interest level off, although SEMrush data showed that search volume remained steady through May 2020.
Takeaway: Search behavior indicated a strong shift from in-patient visits to virtual and online appointments, with a sharp increase in telehealth in March 2020. While we may see a “leveling off” for telemedicine or telehealth search queries as the country reopens, our team expects search interest to remain higher than it was prior to COVID-19.
Telehealth as a Mainstream Option
While it’s unclear the impact that COVID-19 will have on telemedicine in the long-term, it’s expected to be more widely used than it was before. Wardell Advisors’ managing partner informed the WSJ that more patients will turn to online care post-COVID, accelerating telehealth adoption. Additionally, many hospitals plan to invest more in telehealth solutions following the pandemic.
This is in part due to changes that have made telemedicine more accessible and cost-effective for patients:
● Insurance offers reimbursement coverage for remote patient monitoring in nearly every state.
● The Trump administration and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) made changes to coverage and reimbursement rules for Medicare beneficiaries.
● Many states relaxed restrictions for licensing and out-of-state providers.
● The Drug Enforcement Administration partnered with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to allow authorized providers to prescribe controlled substances via telemedicine.
These changes were in response to the pandemic, but it’s expected that many of these policies will stay in place in some capacity after COVID-19.
Takeaway: Telehealth isn’t going away. Providers with established programs should be thinking about what to do to promote this service as an option.
Telehealth Marketing Opportunities
COVID-19 may have led to a surge in the telehealth market, but we expect it to stay long after the virus. It’s critical that healthcare providers capitalize on this monumental shift in search behavior and healthcare now. Are you doing all you can to make sure your telehealth program is set up for success?
Here are some initiatives and tactics you should be implementing now to build momentum and get ahead of your competition. It goes without saying that your individual performance will vary, according to the success of your own SEO and/or PPC initiatives, as well as the impact of COVID-19 in the marketplace you serve.
Competitor analysis: See what other healthcare providers are doing to leverage virtual care. How can you elevate or differentiate your practice? If your telehealth program is for new patients, you need to “sell” it. Even if your program is for current patients, don’t assume that they know about telehealth.
Website messaging: Whether it’s on key service line pages, your homepage, top-performing blog posts or a website banner, make sure website visitors know that telehealth is an option. Include calls to action throughout your website.
Content marketing: To rank for it, you have to write about it. Create a telehealth webpage (if your organization does not already have one) that is user-friendly and optimized for organic search. Make sure your telehealth content answers the questions that your patients are asking, including information regarding online privacy. Support this content with internal links from other relevant webpages and blog posts. Promote telehealth content via social media, email newsletters, Google My Business posts and paid advertisements.
Paid advertising: If telehealth has enabled you to expand your geographic market, use paid search ads to reach new patients. Consider that these users aren’t familiar with your brand, so make sure your website messaging is accurate and up to date.
Google My Business: Don’t assume searchers will go to your website for information. Think of your Google My Business listing(s) as a billboard and update with important information. Google My Business now allows healthcare providers to indicate if they offer online care. Use Google My Business posts to share updates from your practice.
Organic social media: Try using Facebook Live or Instagram Live to engage with your followers and answer questions about telehealth. We’ve found that followers enjoy interacting with clinicians and hearing directly from them. Ask followers to submit questions prior to your live stream so that clinicians can tailor the conversation.
Email marketing: Leverage your website and social media messaging to current and new patients. Make sure your referral list is aware of your telehealth solutions as well. Don’t assume that referring physicians know that you offer telehealth.
As of this writing, most states are experiencing daily increases in COVID-19 cases, reinforcing the need for social distancing. Though the health of the public (as well as the economy) will be the ultimate factors in future search behavior, there are reasons to consider that healthcare will change, and that telemedicine will be more mainstream.
As such, it is our recommendation that marketers within the vertical should prepare to pivot and market their telehealth services.