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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