While the notion has long prevailed that rural Americans live in the “digital dark,” new data suggests that rural patients are actually online just as much as their urban counterparts. And, thanks in part to widespread smartphone and data-plan usage, pharma marketers can now reach all patients—no matter their geographic location—more easily than ever before.
Still, there’s no denying that city dwellers have better wireless and internet services. Rural residents were found to be twice as likely to have “somewhat weak” to “no wireless coverage” (24%) compared with urban residents (12%), according to data gathered from Phreesia Life Sciences, which surveyed more than 4,700 patients—including more than 1,800 rural patients—as they checked in for doctors’ appointments in December 2021 and January 2022. But despite these infrastructure challenges, smartphones are helping close the digital-access gap.
“There are a lot of misperceptions about life in rural settings, often portraying rural folks as less tech-savvy or less connected to online services,” says David Linetsky, Phreesia’s Senior Vice President, Life Sciences. “We’re really proud to be able to do this work of actually talking to patients who live in rural communities to better understand their stories and experiences.”
Phreesia survey data found that only 7% of rural patients say they don’t have access to smartphones and data plans—just a percentage more than the 6% of urban patients who say they lack such access. Therefore, given that rural patients are becoming just as accessible online as urban patients, pharma marketers should tailor their efforts to meet these populations in the digital spaces they frequent, Linetsky advises.
“Digital platforms such as Phreesia, telehealth services, and other digital communications technologies are making healthcare more accessible to rural patients and also making it easier for manufacturers and marketers to reach those patient audiences with important health information that can help them better engage in their care,” he says.
The top activity for smartphone users across geographies is checking email, with some 82% of rural patients and 84% of urban patients listing it as an activity they use the internet on their smartphones for. Web browsing rates as all users’ second-most-popular activity, with 70% of rural patients and 72% of urban patients reporting that they browse the internet; and social media rounds out the top three, with nearly two-thirds (60%) of rural patients using their smartphones to scroll through social media, even more than the 55% of urban patients who use the internet for the same purpose.
Considering these browsing and scrolling percentages among rural patients, smartphone-optimized content is a great way to engage them. Even more notably, rural patients most want tools to help them manage their health. Top requests include: personalized resources specific to their health condition (44%); remote physician or nurse support (36%); and resources that can teach them where to find health information (27%).
“In places with lower population densities, a lot of traditional out-of-home marketing tactics are ineffective,” Linetsky says. “Reaching patients that live in rural communities is best done through the use of digital platforms that are capable of identifying high-quality audiences that meet the specific clinical and demographic criteria you’re looking for.”
Still, in determining digital-marketing strategies, it’s important to note that rural patients find it slightly more difficult to gather healthcare information online than their urban counterparts. For instance, a little more than one-quarter (26%) of rural patients are uncertain about how to use the medical information they gather in an internet search to make health decisions, versus 23% of urban patients. In addition, rural patients tend to consider the online health information they track down less helpful than urban patients do. Fewer than one-fifth (19%) of surveyed rural patients categorized the information they found online as “very helpful,” compared with 23% of urban patients.
That disconnect underscores the importance of making sure that the online health information marketers provide to patients is easily understandable and based on their specific needs. In addition to engaging with patients in the online spaces they already frequent, such as social media and email, optimizing pharma educational and support materials for mobile devices further increases opportunities to connect with rural patients by helping them build their healthcare awareness.