Pharma needs to embrace social media

Anyone working in the pharma industry will know it has been a tough few years. Dwindling innovation in the drug pipelines, the impact of global economic pressures and an increasing global focus on healthcare cost containment have all combined in a perfect storm for the sector often regarded as recession-proof.

As the backdrop to all this, social media has rapidly been finding its place as a powerful media in sectors selling directly to consumers. However, pharma has been slow to embrace the charms of blogging, online communities and popular channels such as Twitter and Facebook. The tight regulatory environment within which pharma operates is often blamed, as direct-to-consumer (patient) promotion is banned in many markets and any patient feedback must be closely monitored for drug safety information.

In reality, these are not valid arguments against social media when the benefits are considered. Here are three pivotal reasons why pharma must embrace social media.

1. PR – better relationships with doctors, patients and the public. The pharma industry does not have a great reputation. It may have kept low while the bankers have taken the flak, but recent publications such as Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma reveal the ongoing mistrust of the industry from medical professionals and patients. In being reluctant to socialise with such groups and explain its business in more detail, pharma is leaving the door wide open to an unbalanced and one-sided view of the way it operates.

Social media is a poor channel for direct sales in most industries, but it is a great channel for building brand trust and procuring customer feedback, both of which are well within the regulations. Developing drugs takes years of effort and significant investment – all of which means nothing to a patient who cannot afford high priced products or a doctor who does not trust the clinical data. More open communication and engagement by pharma through social media would lead to a better understanding of its business processes, greater trust and more balanced conversations about drug positioning and pricing.

2. Medication compliance – taking drugs as they were intended. Compliance, the issue of whether patients take their medicine as intended (or at all), is a critical issue for healthcare systems in general. Failure to take medicines in the right way generally leads to increased financial burden on the system further down the line as the patient’s disease worsens and medicines are branded as ineffective, which reduces sales for pharma.

Poor compliance is not just about forgetting to take medicines; it can often be caused by a failure to properly understand drug side effects (‘adverse events’ as pharma calls them), as medical product information is not easily understood by the patient and often not explained in detail by the doctor.

Better reporting of side effects and general compliance issues through social media engagement will help pharma address these issues and understand how its products are being used outside the lab. If compliance is improved it is a win-win-win for healthcare systems, the patients and pharma.

3. Patient-reported outcomes – real world evidence for medicines. The clinical trial populations used in drug development do not exactly represent the patient population in the real world. Such trials often involve younger participants with a lower incidence of associated diseases in order to provide a purer assessment of drug effectiveness.

As with compliance, understanding the post-approval impact of medicines in real life has therefore become critical to healthcare providers and pharma companies, who invest significantly in ‘phase IV’ studies. The information derived from such studies includes patient-reported outcomes (PROs) – the patient’s view on whether the medicine is helping treat the disease and has manageable side effects.

This kind of information is being shared every day in online disease-centric communities, such as PatientsLikeMe, and pharma can quickly collect this information through social channels allowing it to adapt drug positioning or target patient populations, as required.

In summary, the information pharma needs to adapt and thrive is out there right now. It just needs to embrace social media by listening, engaging and acting on it.

Paul Tunnah is founder and managing director of pharmaphorum.  This article originally appeared at Management Thinking

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  • carolynthomas

    Paul, with all due respect, this reads like a primer on marketing-based medicine. No wonder there’s an “ongoing mistrust of the industry from medical professionals and patients”.

    We have good reason to be mistrustful, as Dr. Ben Goldacre itemizes prolifically in his book, when you consider the corporate strategies employed by the industry over decades to help boost drug and device sales. Medical ghostwriting, selective outcome reporting, tainted research, flawed journal articles bought and paid for by industry, kickbacks to doctors and hospitals, mass recalls of deadly drugs, and financial conflicts of interest so blatant that they’re summed up by former New England Journal of Medicine editor Dr. Marcia Angell like this: “It is no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines.”

    As a heart patient, I’m also suspicious of industry-funded online patient support communities (what we in the public relations field call “astroturfing”). More on this at: And the industry’s public concern about “compliance” (a word that many patients hate, by the way – a bit more than the slightly-less patronizing “adherence”) is quite clearly seen as trying to cash in on a lost sales opportunity costing the pharmaceutical industry an estimated $30 billion per year. No wonder industry has started launching patient-engagement programs to address non-compliance.

    • Paul Tunnah

      Hi Carolyn,

      Thanks for your comment. I can appreciate the strength of feeling towards the industry from patients who feel they cannot trust pharma – it is something I hear a lot in these discussions (and we have featured several interviews with patients). However, the point I am making with all three reasons is that there is great value in pharma using social media to hear such feedback and act on it. No-one expects things to change overnight, but by listening the industry can adapt and become more responsive.

      For sure, pharma is a commercial industry and will always have to keep one eye on commercial benefit, but areas like compliance, adherence or simply “being confident to take medicines as instructed” (whichever term you prefer) do have the potential to benefit all sides if managed properly.

      Commentators like Ben Goldacre raise some valid, and deeply concerning, points but we must look to the future and how to improve things as, sadly, we cannot change the past. The alternative….to do nothing and carry on as pharma always has done is clearly not optimal for pharma, HCPs or, most of all, patients.

  • Sven Awege

    Good article Paul.
    For Pharma to embrace social media more it needs to overcome some of the basics.
    ComBlu did a great comparative study on communities, commented by Pharmaguy highlighting some of the issues:

    If we want to capture the value of social media we need to push from all side to generate change. That means lobbying at all levels – Health authorities (FDA, EMA…), Pharma, and also patients. In my opinion patients can do more to force change by demanding more!

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