Why Australian Doctor wants to be more like Facebook

12 minute read

Medical media has for years engaged doctors via journalism and storytelling, funded mainly by pharma advertising. Now it wants to go upstream – what might that mean for doctors?

The largest GP media group in the country, Australian Doctor, is attempting an audacious metamorphosis.

It has announced, in a recent video presentation for advertisers, that it is trying to transition from being a traditional media group, where its major audience engagement is generated by journalists, to being a doctor digital platform where GPs talk securely peer to peer, consult with and refer to specialists, where members are profiled as in LinkedIn or Facebook, find each other and collaborate and share advice and information based on those profiles, and can engage directly if they wish with the pharma industry in their own time via various digital tools such as virtual rep appointments.

So rather than being say, The Age, for GPs, it would like to be something more akin to Facebook for GPs, albeit with all the good stuff from the past Australian Doctor – all that good journalism and storytelling – too.

You can’t blame Australian Doctor for trying something like this. It is owned by private equity and if it somehow pulled such a vision off, the value of a digital platform could be more than 10 times the value of a traditional media group. That, and being a traditional media group, trying to compete for the attention of a doctor amid the bombardment of attention thieves doctors are now exposed to via their mobile phones and the internet, isn’t the sexy business model it once was.

But a doctor digital platform based on the sort of engagement described above would be something quintessentially different in the end from a traditional media platform.

Would doctors trust such a platform to deliver both independent journalism on the one hand, and on the other, be harvesting behavioural data around things like peer-to-peer clinical discussions, or referral patterns, and using it to optimise the engagement of the advertising community, as you see on the bigger digital platforms like Google or Facebook?

As with the big digital platforms, Australian Doctor is saying it would also be using such data to optimise the experience of the users, doctors. It is at pains to point out that it is going for a much better experience and for more value for doctors, and if it did pull it off, that might happen.

The vision includes:

  • Creating enhanced profiles of more than 40,000 local healthcare professionals and using that data to encourage more peer to peer interaction, and “more efficient” engagement with advertisers
  • The ability of users to search for and connect and collaborate with peers and specialists based on the data
  • The ability to refer patients to specialists
  • A secure messaging platform between all parties on the platform for interaction
  • An ability to connect directly with advertisers to make appointments with reps, arrange e-details, attend seminars and so on, all when it suits a doctor
  • Advertiser dashboards, where they can adjust live campaigns of communication to doctors, much like Google and Facebook have online platforms for advertisers to book and monitor performance
  • An ability for the platform to create segments and cohorts and retarget advertising messages to such groups

There are precedents for platforms like this both in Australia and around the world – Sermo, DXY and Healthunlocked are commercial doctor engagement platforms that do some of this in the US, Doc2doc is a UK version of these, and locally GPs Down Under (GPDU) is a GP Facebook group that does a lot of the peer discussion part of this model, ShareGP was a failed attempt by the RACGP at something that did some of this, and Business for Doctors is another Facebook based engagement group which focuses around the commercial side of being a doctor

Some platforms are very commercial, like Sermo, and some are vehemently non-commercial, like GPDU. Both sorts get engagement, but the trust dynamic and information being generated on each is quite different. Everything is a trade-off in a digital world.

But there is a very clear dividing line between a media group that creates engagement via journalism, and one that creates engagement via facilitating peer networking on a digital platform such as Facebook, Google, Sermo and GPDU. Both models are seeking to get your attention. The commercial ones are trying to leverage that attention by selling bits of it to advertisers. But the way media is doing it and the platforms are doing it is vastly different. And the differences don’t generally sit well together. The trust equation of GPDU is nothing like Australian Doctor. It’s hard to imagine the sort of exchange that occurs within GPDU occurring on the same platform where journos are sniffing the wind for some good stories.

Today, almost all the attention that you are giving to Australian Doctor is as a result of it independently reporting on something that is “in the public interest” for doctors to know.

Good news is commonly described as information someone somewhere never wants to be published. To do that you need journalists. If you run journalists, you will necessarily have a culture that is very specific (they are a strange socially conscious, serious and left field crew generally), a culture that is naturally suspicious, sceptical, but also creative and enquiring. It’s not like any other culture of any other business. It’s strange and tribal but effective to get the job done.

Running journalists of course is almost becoming a luxurious pastime these days.

It’s hard, expensive and the money to support the activity has been drained away in large swathes to various digital platform plays in the last two decades.

Culturally, logistically and commercially, it’s much easier to run a platform where you are so good at facilitating peer-to-peer engagement and you get more and more people joining and the more that join, the more engagement possibilities there are – that’s called a network effect.

If you have a network effect on your platform and the more people that join increases the value of engagement for each member, then you have a modern-day attention-grabbing monster cash cow. Google and Facebook are monsters but smaller and niche versions of digital platforms are everywhere in your life now.

That being said, for all that Facebook, Google, Amazon, and the like are in our faces as the modern way people get information, actually creating such a platform, and sustaining it, is extraordinarily difficult. The failure rate of platform plays is astronomically high.

The reason is that platforms such as Google and Facebook tend to be market-winner-takes-all plays. There’s only room for one or two at the most when you are building networks. You need to have all points of the network if you can. Everyone else gets squashed as the winners have the most users and the more you have the more you get, until only a couple are left.

This no doubt is something on the mind of Australian Doctor’s private equity owners. Let’s create a network that somehow captures a lot more of the attention of doctors than a simple media play.

But a key question for the executives over at Australian Doctor is, can you run both business models in one play, and still retain the trust of your users?

If Australian Doctor is to pull off their vision It is going to use a pretty neat three card trick. It already has a large and engaged user base. It already has them profiled. It already has a lot of data. It just wants to take that and take it to a completely new level by convincing doctors to do a whole lot more on their platform than just read the news. One where a whole lot more information transactions can happen digitally.

The problem it will face in trying to do this is that the culture, people and processes of a traditional media company are vastly different from a platform company. You could hardly get two business models more far apart in outlook, culture and focus. Imagine Bob Woodward shooting the breeze at lunchtime with Mark Zuckerberg and you have the sort of dynamic that would need to work.

The only thing these two business models have have in common is that they both monetise via grabbing eyeballs and putting advertising in front of them.

Today, Australian Doctor creates nearly all its engagement and attention through journalism and information moderation. It’s declared the future is to either supplement that substantively or replace it entirely by something completely different.

What might not augur well for Australian Doctor’s owners is that there is no precedent anywhere in the world for a traditional media company transforming to become a true digital platform. There is none either for one transitioning to a hybrid model even.

My best guess as to why that is the case is that the two models of engagement are worlds apart as described above. They are even in conflict to some degree – you might have noticed how much grief traditional consumer media likes to give Facebook and Google for stealing its IP and leveraging it without what the traditional media owners think is appropriate reward.

If I was asked to invest in Australian Doctor’s vision and strategy I wouldn’t do it (there is an irony here I explain below). The two things the management are now going to try to smash together don’t go together – at all.

Australian Doctor is a journalist-centric media model first and foremost and that’s why it’s been a relatively trusted brand by doctors for 36 years. It’s not a sexy model for sure these days but it has been good enough to have survived the digital Armageddon that has beset most traditional media companies in the last 10 years. Australian Doctor is still a good and profitable media venture. It’s managed this because it’s a great product, maintained well, in a very important, large and interesting B2B market. If it becomes denuded by a focus on becoming a digital platform, everyone will be worse off, except perhaps for the owners, who may just manage to flip the business quickly to an unsuspecting buyer if they manage to trick it up enough so someone is fooled into thinking it is something that it is not.

None of this is to say that the owners and the people at Australian Doctor shouldn’t still have a go at starting something new and different. Something that is akin to a digital platform. And creating lots of doctor engagement and value, and lots of making money from it.

They should try this if they want. But they should try it at an appropriate distance from the perfectly good existing media business, using all the leverage and knowledge from that business they can. That tactic would avoid damaging something that is important to the Australian healthcare market – its largest media group – should something go wrong (and lots is likely to go wrong).

On this note, another media company, Tonic Media Network, has done exactly what is described above. It is a traditional media company that has dabbled in a completely new business model, which is getting traction, but outside of the core business.

Tonic is a traditional media company, albeit with a lot of digital smarts because they run a huge network of digital screens across Australian waiting rooms for doctors.

In the last year, interested in the explosion of digital healthcare platform businesses that was occurring around them, through doing deals with many of them, and watching how they worked, the folks at Tonic decided to hive off a division and throw a completely different digital health business idea up against the wall.

That idea is Script Concierge, which is a digital platform for script fulfilment for doctors and patients. It’s an idea which, if it really takes off, will offer a very simple platform for GPs to help their patients by easily getting their scripts filled and delivered to their homes, and improve their patient’s care substantively by allowing them for the first time ever to have downstream visibility of everything that happens to their patient’s script once they have written it. You can read about here if you’re interested.

That’s a great platform idea, birthed by a traditional media company, which might work, and not disturb a good existing business.

Tonic remains a pretty substantive and well- run consumer-facing healthcare media group (Norman Swan is a director and founder) largely undisturbed by the whims of the CEO and his digital strategy director to try something new on the side. And this new platform venture, could easily end up being the most valuable to the two businesses.


The amount of potential conflict I have in writing this piece is actually laughable so no letters or emails if you can help it please. Make your own judgement what I’m actually trying to do or say here after checking out all the issues I have below.

  • I was once the CEO and publisher of Australian Doctor and left the business five years ago to start The Medical Republic.
  • The Medical Republic is obviously a competitor of sorts to Australian Doctor, albeit I like to think a very friendly and media collegiate competitor.
  • As the ex-CEO overseeing the ADG business, I have a lot of money still invested in that group (in PE, they don’t let you take it with you, unfortunately), so if the group goes badly, I stand to lose some of that investment. Figure that one out. Am I saying leave Australian Doctor alone to make it better, and save my investment, or worse, and put my new business in a better position? I don’t even know the answer. I do think Australian Doctor has been and remains a pretty good media group and important to the GP ecosystem, though. If it got wrecked it wouldn’t be good for anyone in the end.
  • Another left-field conflict you may not have seen coming: Tonic Media, which I mention at the end here, and spruik just a little, owns 10% of The Medical Republic.

If you’ve been reading this column regularly you will know that I invested also in a rather large and fragile glass house just a few months ago as well. I posted most of this piece from that house.

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