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Increased talk of health and medicine on social media, untapped opportunity for drug companies

One-third of american adults looks for medical information on social networks, but pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to engage in this kind od dialogue while still awaiting guidance from FDA

March 2014

It’s Friday evening and Anna is worried. She’s finished her prescription but her condition has worsened and she can’t get ahold of her doctor. Anna considers finishing what’s left of the medicine, but she fears that the infection has spread and perhaps she now requires a different treatment. Who can she turn to?

A third of U.S. adults would turn to social media for medical information, in this and a wide variety of other situations, according to the April 2012 PwC Health Research Institute study, “Social media “likes” healthcare: from marketing to social business”. With such a notable portion of the population seeking online guidance outside of the realm of institutional websites, what should pharmaceutical companies be doing to meet the users where they gather?

It’s a complex question that touches upon many sensitive issues. Though the same PwC study indicates that over 90% of respondents aged 18 to 24 and 54% of those aged 45 to 64 tend to trust the health information they receive on social media sites, the study found that drug companies are perceived as less reliable sources than doctors, hospitals and insurers. In addition, regulatory concerns make social networking risky and many companies are awaiting the guidance the FDA has promised to issue and repeatedly postponed delivering. Yet, the direct line of communication that these platforms provide could be key to building relationships with consumers to overcome the trust gap, and the establishment of a highly developed framework for social network management could reduce the risk involved. Social networks hold a wealth of information for use in core operations, and if used correctly could revolutionize the way Pharma does business.

To best engage consumers and develop ongoing relationships with them, one must know what they are looking for. Of those surveyed by PwC, 34% state that social media websites would affect their decision to take certain medications. As many as 68% of respondents would value the use of social networks as a platform for drug companies to offer discounts or coupons and 65% would value it as a space where they can make complaints and receive customer service. By engaging the user in a helpful exchange of information and incentives, and by meeting them on what they perceive as their terms, pharmaceutical companies may be able to overcome hurdles on the road to trust. In fact, one-third of respondents have said they would even be willing to have their social media conversations monitored in the aim of improving their health or coordinating care.

The monitoring of social networks, in turn, helps drug companies form a more complete patient profile. This could lead to the creation of more patient-centred care. On the other hand, the information obtained through social ‘listening’ can be funnelled into core operations like customer service, data analytics and product development, transforming ‘social marketing’ into ‘social business’.

So, why have pharmaceutical companies been so much slower than other industries to embrace social media? The fallout of social media gaffs in unregulated businesses, such as hijacked hashtags, insensitive posts and hacked accounts, pales in comparison to the repercussions of a less-than-perfectly managed social presence on the part of pharmaceutical companies. Here, the FDA has precious advice to offer in its draft guidance on “Responding to Unsolicited Requests for Off-Label Information about Prescription Drugs and Medical Devices,” issued in December 2011. While the PwC study determined that marketing/communications and IT departments are typically responsible for social media within the health industry, in its document, the FDA highly recommends that the community managers responding to unsolicited requests on behalf of drug companys be qualified scientific or medical staff independent from marketing and advertising functions. The FDA also strongly suggests having a clear definition of which questions deserve a public response, a private response or outright deletion and indicates how to approach the response itself, what background information to include and what information should be archived.

Yet, the FDA draft guidance on unsolicited requests merely scrapes the surface of how pharmaceutical companies can responsibly manage social media outlets. It is just the first in a series of guidance promised by the FDA back in 2009. Future guidance will address topics such as space limitations on social media, post-marketing submission requirements, online communications for manufacturers, packers, or distributors, the use of links on the Internet and correcting misinformation.

In the meantime, pharmaceutical companies could do more to enhance their presence on social networks by opening up to conversation, according to the PwC study. It found that less than one in three pharmaceutical companies have Facebook walls available for individuals to initiate posts. Compare this to the findings that two out of three health providers and insurers allow individuals to post on their walls. Yet, if positive comments, negative comments and requests for information are handled correctly on branded social media, it can go a long way in making consumers like Anna feel cared for and appreciated. In a world where social networks give consumers a voice, the way forward is not to resist change, but to open up to a direct dialogue with them as the way forward, together.