Pharma and social media

pharma online community, medical communications, patient education programmes, social media strategies, medical information

The role of social media in educating the public can not be underestimated, neither can online patient testimonies which provide a wealth of health and medicine information. By monitoring online communities the industry can also record adverse events, answer information requests, and improve patient compliance and ultimately treatment outcomes. It also can mean a firm can publish accurate, evidence-based data to consumers which would otherwise look for third party sources. All these advantages can be built into a strategy, whereby certain populations can be targeted through social media. Below is an interesting short video on population profiling:

Yet as described by Phil Baumann CEO of CareVocate,, this presents layers of challenges or quite accurately put peeling an ‘onion’. In order to implement successful online community engagement the industry has already allocated considerable time and resources. There also has to be awareness of regulations, ethical concerns and public perception of engagement independence. Publishing online needs to compile with the regulatory bodies such as ABPI Code of Practice which prohibits the promotion of medicines to patients in the UK ( or indeed the lack of any guidance (which pharma has been pressing for years) such as FDA’s failure to deliver on any social media rules at the end of last year ( With the risk of multi-billion-dollar lawsuits, such as Pfizer’s recent USD $2.3 billion settlement for marketing drugs, it shows the legal minefield of social media and why pharma would be hesitant to jump in. Last year some 14 companies including J&J and GSK were warned on the use of social media to market their products. This included Bayer’s Mirena campaign through its Mom Central website, which the FDA stated as ‘misleadingly’ overstated ‘the proven efficacy of Mirena’(,8599,2037568,00.html#ixzz18fWnImfQ).

However pharma have launched numerous social media strategies. This includes but are not limited to:

Pfizer launched its Twitter account in July 2009 and wanted to see 100 execs tweet, creating greater transparency and improve its image with the media. This was a huge change around from a time when the top PR man admitted that there was an unwritten rule of not calling back reporters. Pfizer was also the first to launch, in a regulated industry, its own social-media channel to deliver a variety of content from presentation to video posts via the online sharing site SlideShare ( Other outlets also include an internal discussion plaform – which is designed to encourage development by encouraging openness, breaking down silos and information exchanges – there is also an interactive Medicine Safety website – which provides patient education in a non-promotional environment – and of course the group public blogging, Think Science Now, which tries to bring the voice of their scientist community into the open ( This week the company continues its social network offensive with the release of a ‘social media playbook’ advising employees on how to contribute to sites such as Twitter and Facebook.;drawer-container

Johnson and Johnson’s involvement has grown massively still the stalled attempt to the have all 120,000 employees have their own blog in 2007. Its social media strategy includes a corporate blog – JNJ BTW – edited by former Bloomberg Business Network reporter Marc Monseau, JNJ Health Channel on youtube, which has over 146 videos including ‘Gastric Bypass Surgery Q&A’s’ and ‘Teenage Obesity and Weight Loss Treatment’. The youtube channel in fact had a larger ‘digital footprint than SanofiPasteurTV, GSKVision and the AbbottChannel combined ( Real-time media on its Twitter channel (@jnjcomm), which was launched in March 2009. A useful ebook detailing J&J’s online activities can be found at

NovoNordisk launched a fascinating campaign on Twitter with diabetic, professional Indy-car driver Charlie Kimball, who now regularly tweets on using the company’s two insulin products, quoting the drugs generic name and a link to information about the drug’s risks and benefits. This is a very distinctive campaign, particularly with the absence of formal rules. Time will tell what regulatory guidelines will emerge for responsibility for third-party claims on drug risk or benefits on outlets like this or indeed Wikipedia.

GSK has established a Facebook page and Twitter feed for its global brand and US subsidiary. It also has a Facebook presence for some of its brands including the Nicoretter smoking-cessation brand, Zantac, Paxil and Dexedrine (


But social media is not without its problems. J&J, which had one of longest experiences of social media, came under huge criticism for its use to communicate with consumers on the McNeil Consumer recall of children’s medicine in May 2009. Critics felt J&J execs didn’t continue dialogue with contributors, including patients, doctors and former employees, on the JNJBTW blog, although negative comments were approved and published ( Social media also provides an outlet to voice complaints/serious adverse events to a mass audience; which can be harmful to a company’s profile and product. This is only amplified when voiced on the company’s resources as shown by the example of Sanofi-Aventis’ VOICES. The company re-opened its VOICES Wall under new terms/disclaimer after removing all posts when a cancer survivor Shirley Ledlie, who had permanent hair loss after taking Taxotere, laid ‘seige’ to the forum. The page now states that the forum is not ‘intended as a forum for discussing sanofi-aventis or other companies products including the reporting of side effects’ and postings containing this would be removed ( Not a very good public relations episode.

And of course there is the lack of regulatory quidelines as Novartis found out when it got hit by the FDA for its ‘Share on Facebook’ widget on its branded website for Tasigna. The FDA stated this was the link represented the benefits of the drugs and not information on the adverse reactions (

It can be seen that the advantages to a good social media strategy are better patient compliance, more educational outlets and a way of improving treatment outcomes. Evidently it is becoming more important to improve patient outcomes and also recording patient reported outcome data through this social media. The emphasis on comparative effectiveness research and value-based pricing by payers will mean a greater focus on managing an effective online engagement strategy and working with patients and physician communities. This has begun but its not without its problems……….

For a list of all social media used by the pharmaceutical industry, as of 10/9/10, visit


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