The use of social media in pharma: DTC or engagement?

  • The IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics states that “the strategies that pharmaceutical companies use to engage with social media could be categorized as low-risk and less innovative than those employed in other industries.”
  • The pharmaceutical industry has been slow to embrace social media.
  • One reason is the lack of guidance from health regulators about using social media. In the US, for example.
  • Users of social media now expect to be able to have a conversation with pharmaceutical companies when they face uncertainties.

According to IMS “the role of social networks in healthcare is critical throughout a patient’s journey, and demand by patients for support is high, with social media expanding on the habit of discussing healthcare with family and friends”. So why is pharma so reluctant to take part in the conversation?

Obviously the lack of guidance is key, but the reluctance of pharma to take risks is also a huge reason.  At the heart of this is the debate to whether social media use by pharma is DTC vs. patient engagement.  Then there is the question: “who is going to implement social media and do they understand the legal and regulatory boundaries.

Having implemented social media at ASCO for a client I had to sit through two days of meetings with their legal and regulatory people.  It did help me understand the parameters of what I could say, but it was restrictive.

Then there are worries about adverse events reported on social media.  Again, the FDA is living in the past on this issu e.  User names on social media can be anything from an alias to a cartoon character.  Reported adverse events on social media should be handled with a link to report the event, but given the difficulty of using the FDA’s online form I think it’s safe to say less than 10% of adverse events are actually reported.

The biggest loss with pharma’s reluctance to use social media is the possible loss of building trust with an audience that doesn’t trust pharma. Pharma needs to stop using social media as a billboard and instead they need to listen to their audience and respond even it means risking a letter from the FDA.  They need to hire people who understand the brand and the disease state so they can respond as a person, not as a corporation.

The media is throwing rocks at pharma’s image and to date all pharma has done is respond with propaganda from PhRMA.  News for pharma; that isn’t working.  If you want to gain back trust you need to stop being a corporation and start being a company that cares about its customers.

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