Five years ago, when I was working on the social marketing campaign for the H1N1 pandemic with the Public Health Agency of Canada, one of the first things we did was search engine marketing (SEM). In any public health crisis, the first thing people do is look online for symptoms, diagnoses and treatments, so we bid on as many relevant terms as possible to ensure the health authority’s evidence-based campaign was the first link they saw.
Internet self-care is both a blessing and a curse for healthcare, depending on how it is used. Parents can find reassurance in sharing symptoms, stories, and resources about minor ailments online, which can lead to fewer panicked emergency room visits. On the other hand, personal anecdotes, cultlike popular movements (like anti-vaccine activism and homeopathy) and just plain charlatanism can seriously interfere with public health.
And then there’s the way the internet feeds on hypochondria:
DDB Brussels worked with Belgian medical site Gezondheid en Wetenschap, with the support of the Belgian government, to buy Google AdWords for the top 100 symptoms people search for. The top (paid) result is an ad that says, “Don’t Google it, check a reliable source,” and directs people to the client’s medical site.
It’s a pretty funny campaign. While it won’t do much to convince hardcore alternative medicine followers to do otherwise, the lighthearted approach may get the attention and compliance of more casual self-diagnosers.