The healthcare industry's experience in obtaining and sharing data offers important lessons for all marketers.

In recent years, healthcare marketers have learned a lot about forming partnerships around data and the necessity of respecting those relationships.

For generations, ownership of healthcare data was relatively one-sided. The healthcare provider collected data on patients but was cautious about sharing information in the medical record with the patient or family members. Notes from physical exams, medical test details, and comments from other physicians were all recorded—but not easily accessed, even by patients hungry for information.

A revolution occurred in the 1990s, one keystroke at a time.

Patients thirsting for knowledge began googling their conditions. Healthcare calls it "cyberchondria," but more than a phenomena it can be risky business: Patients desperate for information often receive incorrect answers from questionable online sources. The Belgian government tried a humorous campaign against such online searches, but the truth is it's not a practice easily halted. People want to access information that empowers them, especially data on their own health.

Smartwatches are the latest tools responding to consumers' desire for health and wellness data. Billed as "personal" products, these watches can capture user heart and pulse rates, fitness activities, and more. In addition to watches, there are other products such as in-home lab tests, exercise trackers, and portable ECGs, all of which offer insightful and usually real-time data for the customer.

These tools are turning the tables on data ownership. In fact, it's said at-home tests and trackers could shift as much as $42 billion away from traditional medical office and outpatient visits (PWC Health Research Institute, 2014).

As marketers, we realize there are great opportunities and lessons—including the following seven—about customer relationships in this data-hungry age.

1. Don't tussle for data; share it

Patients and providers working together to share data with each other can obtain a holistic view of the individual's health status. That's a good lesson for healthcare—as well as other industries, such as banking.

Let's consider the typical online credit card or checking account. Neither will give you the entire picture of your financial health; there's other data that's needed to offer a complete view. Similarly, there's great potential to develop a more robust health profile if the patient shares information from, say, self-monitoring tools and the provider provides data from traditional medical tests.

Getting to that nexus may be difficult; however, everyone wins when all involved participate in developing the big picture.

2. Explain what the data means

Although it's good to be more transparent with data, healthcare information can be very complicated. Providers need to offer more information on what tests mean and they need to be more forthcoming about a patient's options.

When patients have the information they need from reliable sources, they are able to make truly smart decisions.

3. If you don't share data, someone else will

The travel industry, banking, and now healthcare have all found out that empowering customers by giving them more access to data is inevitable. If your company isn't following this evolution, someone else will, whether it's a direct competitor or a disrupter from another sector.

4. Customers who want data are active in online communities

Customers who want access to more data tend to interact with and share their experiences within online communities of similar people. Respond well to these highly engaged customers, and others in their communities are bound to become your customers as a result of positive word-of-mouth.

5. Not everyone is on the same path

You will have some customers who need either more proof or more time before they become willing to share or receive data electronically. Don't cut off such people. Have alternate, traditional methods for reaching out to them so that they can stay informed and enjoy a better customer experience.

6. Ensure everyone in your organization respects customer data

In healthcare, we must adhere to stringent laws on handling of data. If your industry or organization isn't quite as regulated, make sure you nevertheless regulate yourselves.

Don't use data without your customer's permission, and never use data in a manner that will harm your relationship. Improper data use will not only stop customers from providing more but also damage your brand.

7. Data is a tool to facilitate the age-old desire to establish a relationship

In healthcare, everything comes down to the person-to-person relationship. Data should be seen as a way to enhance that relationship—as a bridge to bring the two parties closer between actual encounters. All the data exchange in the world will never trump a face-to-face conversation and interaction.

That's very true in healthcare and probably applicable for every other business as well.

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image of Susan Solomon

Susan Solomon is a healthcare marketing vice-president in Southern California and a marketing instructor at four universities. She was a Fulbright scholar and she has written extensively on marketing, branding, and social media for more than a decade.

LinkedIn: Susan Solomon