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3 Afterthoughts On Google’s Advice For Healthcare Digital Content

I admit, I am one of THOSE patients. I feel something’s wrong. I Google it. I diagnose myself. When I involve my doctor, it’s to confirm the diagnosis and my treatment plan. Fortunately, my doctors know my personality, my background, and what I do for a living.

But Google has made it much easier for patients like me, and making it harder for hospitals to keep up.

Google’s Stealing Our Health System’s Traffic

Back in 2012, Google started displaying knowledge panels on the right side of the search engine results page. For health-related searches, these panels answer basic questions about symptoms, conditions, and treatments before we make an appointment. They also link to medical entities that Google deems trustworthy.

I’ve heard some people in the healthcare content space worry that Google is keeping users from the healthcare organization’s page where they should be getting these answers. And with more than 1 billion health questions about everything from conditions to medications to insurance, there probably are a lot of users who aren’t making it past the results page, because they don’t have to.

That is going to get even stricter. Google is taking more liberty to elevate credible content and eliminate what’s not. We can thank all the myths around COVID-19 and the vaccination for this step towards curation.

They also came out with this announcement:

YouTube is partnering with a number of expert health organizations including the Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic, the National Academy of Health and Harvard’s school of public health to produce the content,” according to a January 2021 article from Fierce Healthcare. They recently brought on Dr. Garth Graham, former CVS chief community health officer and president of the Aetna Foundation, to lead the charge.

On January 23, 2021, we produced an episode of Modern Healthcare’s Next Up podcast with Dr. Karen DeSalvo, Google’s first Chief Health Officer.

Here are some key takeaways from our discussion.

1. Health Systems Will Have to Step It Up On Web Content

Don’t write medical condition 101 content. It’s not worth it, and you won’t win.

Google has officially taken care of the healthcare 101 content. That knowledge panel comes from a team of expert medical illustrators and marquee names in healthcare, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Mayo Clinic.

Then, Google promises that the content has been reviewed by a team of medical professionals.

Instead, your health system’s web content should:

  • Direct patients to content from national trusted sources. “That’s maybe a timesaver but also a way that there’s a consistency of information and drumbeat that people can get across the country to hear the same messages from those same trusted, unbiased authorities. So many people are asking us questions, and now our job is to help them get the best information,” explains Dr. DeSalvo.
  • Invest in content that matters to your specific patient population, like:
    • The journey they can expect for treatment
    • How you’ll approach their treatment and recovery
    • The depression and other psychosocial issues that can come with the condition, especially if it requires a long recovery
    • Bios on your providers (not just the doctors)
    • Other support services, like nutrition, child care, transportation, events, etc.
    • Support for spouses, children, etc.

Your content should talk about the patient’s journey and how your health system can help. Our team’s analytics have consistently found that people don’t want 101 content when they come to a health system website. They’ve already gotten that from Google.

2. Create Content For Your Patients — Not The Doctors

“Healthcare systems sometimes need to go a layer deeper and not just put up the thing that seems to resonate with the administrative team or the clinical team,” Dr. DeSalvo explains. She suggests healthcare organizations ask themselves, “Does this meet these expectations of our community population?”

One way to achieve this is to go straight to the source, such as a community or patient advisory board. I promise, getting feedback from even 3 people who match the target audience, can ensure you’re hitting the mark with your content.

The other way of knowing whether your content is resonating is having the right questions to ask your analytics.

I love working with smaller healthcare organizations that are either independent or couched within larger systems. But I’m always amazed at how many can’t remember the last time they’d seen an analytics report. If they are getting regular analytics from their digital partner or team, it’s a data dump.

No insight telling them to do this, not that. Your website’s data is one of the best sources to understand what questions your users are asking and what tasks they want to complete.

3. Put On Your Equity Filter

I believe healthcare organizations have a responsibility to provide equitable access to not only services, but also information. This takes extra effort if your digital marketing team does not look as diverse as your community.

Karen DeSalvo, MD

“We’ve learned that there are ways that the healthcare system can very quickly shift its strategies and its tactics so that it can be more accessible to consumers and patients in the ways that they want them to be.”
— Dr. Karen DeSalvo, Chief Health Officer at Google

True equity must consider four areas, and each of these trickles into your health system’s content and messaging.


Cost is a barrier to accessing care. We know that. But your content can do its part to alleviate that if people can easily find information on paying bills, insurance questions, and financial help.


One study in January 2019 found that convenience was the number one factor that influences consumers on which provider to choose.

Now, Dr. DeSalvo says that’s even more important during the pandemic. Compared to 2019, telehealth usage in October 2020 was up more than 3,000%.

Kicking telehealth into the mainstream has helped with geographic barriers, but for people who still need to drive in, do the basic stuff.

Make sure your directory has accurate information both on the search engine results page and on your website. If you don’t, your content is contributing to a potential barrier.


This refers to reaching people who have hearing, visual, literacy and developmental differences. People with different ability levels should be able to access content that answers their questions.

If your content creates issues for people with hearing and visual impairments, or developmental differences, you are demonstrating bias and potentially subjecting yourself to a violation of the American Disabilities Act.


I’m not an expert, so I’m not going to attempt a fancy definition of culture. To me, cultural differences mean, you belong to a different group than I belong to.

That group could be based on race or ethnicity, gender, language, sexual orientation, whatever.

If I haven’t learned how to communicate with your group, I’m probably not doing it well. Worst-case scenario is I’m offending you and creating another barrier for you to get care.

If you want your content to be useful, your team should have some standards or best practices in these areas as needed.

Digital Content Beyond The COVID-19 Pandemic

Healthcare digital content has transformed in the past year, and it will continue to do so. As Dr. DeSalvo explains, “When we come out of this pandemic, we’re going to have big health challenges down the road. We’re going to have a pent-up demand for chronic disease, around substance use disorder, as well as other mental health challenges.”

Moving forward, adaptability, recognition of consumer needs, and quality digital content will continue to be essential for healthcare organizations.

Just as Google stands ready to continue to play its important part in the public health ecosystem, so should healthcare organizations — and how you approach your digital content will be a significant factor.

Are you looking to improve your healthcare organization’s digital content strategy? We can help.