The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Health | Communications

October 2013
Unique social media campaign raises awareness about pulmonary disease

By Kumi Sato

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) makes it so hard to breathe that sufferers are unable to carry out routine tasks. Even getting dressed or taking a bath is difficult. The ailment thus is referred to as a silent epidemic in Japan, where it is the seventh leading killer of men.

About 90 percent of COPD sufferers are smokers or ex-smokers, so the disease is preventable. It is also treatable with the right prescription medication. A simple clinical test can detect COPD and, with treatment, many patients go on to live happy, healthy lives.

In the past, potential COPD patients didn’t know about the disease or the treatments available, or were reluctant to go to the doctor. And in Japan, pharmaceutical companies are not allowed to market drugs directly to consumers—even if those products are proven to save lives.

So how do potential patients find out about important medications such as those used to treat COPD? Through effective healthcare communications.

In the case of COPD, Nippon Boehringer Ingelheim (NBI), together with COSMO Healthcare, created an effective communications strategy that makes use of both traditional and social media.

The campaign raised awareness about COPD, prompted potential patients to get tested, and eventually put medicine in their hands to treat the condition. Breathing became easier for many COPD patients, thanks to an innovative and effective campaign.

How It Worked
Research showed that men over 40 years old were at greatest risk for COPD, but also the most likely to avoid treatment. People who exhibited COPD symptoms would say, “It’s not that serious,” or “I’m too busy to go to the doctor.”

Studies also showed that men in the high-risk category were more likely to seek medical advice at the urging of their wives and daughters. Women aged 20 to 40 were the greatest users of social media and blogs. Thus, these women were the campaign’s key communication targets.

While social media was the focus, the strategy also employed traditional Japanese elements, including ema—the small, wooden plaques on which Shinto worshippers write prayers. Ema are usually hung at public shrines and offer prayers for things such as good health and passing entrance exams. However, our plan was virtual: people would post ema on a website called Iki Iki Jinja (iki iki meaning energetic and full of life; jinja meaning shrine) and email them to loved ones.

Traditional media, bloggers, and medical experts were also enlisted as part of the campaign.

At a conference to mark World COPD Day, doctors released background information about COPD. The results of a large survey show that 80 percent of potential patients would go to a doctor if prompted by their family.

Key power bloggers were invited to be the first ones to write and send ema. These online opinion leaders would play an important role in getting the message out.

Ultimately, the campaign generated enormous interest. By the end of June 2013, over 35 million people had been reached and more than 5,200 ema had been sent to potential COPD sufferers.

Most importantly, follow-up research showed that online engagement translated into effective action. About 47 percent of ema recipients said they would see a doctor about COPD.

The campaign showed that healthcare communications could be effective in reaching targeted audiences. It also proved the power of social media, integrating blogs, websites, email, and other online activities.

The effort prompted behavioral change in hard-to-reach patients by capitalizing on influence they listened to most—from their loved ones.

In addition, the campaign demonstrated that in an environment where advertising and direct marketing are unavailable, creativity is the key to educating the public, spreading a message, and perhaps, even saving lives.

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Kumi Sato is president and CEO of COSMO. She served as chairman of the ACCJ from 2011–2012 and is currently the vice-chair of the ACCJ’s Labor Force Diversification Task Force and the Growth Strategy Task Force.