Pharma slow to engage social media

To put it in Facebook terms, the pharmaceutical industry by and large has yet to friend American consumers.

A new report from the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics concludes that fewer than half of the top 50 global pharmaceutical manufacturers “have some level of healthcare social media engagement.” This, despite the fact that “increasingly, patients are turning to social media as an essential forum for obtaining and sharing information related to their health,” noted Murray Aitken, the institute’s executive director.

The results of the IMS Health study should serve as a wake-up call for drug manufacturers. Although “the overall level of engagement between pharmaceutical companies and patients has steadily increased during the past year as more organizations become active in this area,” IMS noted, pharma as a whole still significantly lags the consumer products industry and other segments of the economy.

In its report, “Engaging Patients through Social Media,” IMS took a glass-half-full interpretation of its findings. “Among the top 50 pharmaceutical companies worldwide, nearly half [23 firms] actively participate in social media on Face-book, Twitter or YouTube,” noted the institute’s report. “However, only 10 companies utilize all three of these major social networking services for healthcare topics.”

What’s more, said the report, “many companies are using social media primarily as a unilateral broadcasting channel to physicians and patients, with limited interac-tion or fostering of discussion.”

The findings run counter to the goals voiced by many drug industry leaders. “More than half of pharmaceutical executives list mastering multichannel marketing and improving digital effectiveness within their top strategic priorities,” IMS reported. “However, the reality is that investment in this area remains low relative to other industries.”

Indeed, only one major pharmaceutical company, Johnson & Johnson, scored high on a ranking system developed by IMS to gauge the industry’s level of effectiveness and commitment to social media as a way to reach consumers. J&J scored 70 on the IMS Health Social Media Engagement Index, but other companies that ranked in the top 10 achieved scores ranging only from 25 to nine.

“The industry needs to become less risk averse to new engagements with stakeholders to remain relevant in the overall healthcare discussion,” Aitken said. “Advancing social media to a more central position in health care — particularly in the appropriate use of medicines — requires improved quality of information, a more proactive embrace of technology tools by pharmaceutical manufacturers and greater recognition by healthcare professionals of the positive role social media interactions can play in wellness, prevention and treatment.”

Blame the pharmaceutical industry’s sluggish embrace of social media in part on the Food and Drug Administration and what Aitken calls “regulatory uncertainty.”

In January, the FDA took a small step in clearing up the uncertainty by issuing proposed rules that would instruct drug makers on how to submit “interactive promotional media” applications to the agency for review, and gave industry stakeholders 90 days to respond. But the FDA has until July 2014 to issue a full draft guidance document governing how pharmaceutical makers engage consumers via Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere, as mandated by the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act of 2012.

“For some time, the FDA’s Office of Prescription Drug Promotion ... has been struggling to understand and respond to the regulatory challenges posed by new emerging digital communications platforms, with little to show for it,” observed attorney and pharmaceutical industry consultant Mark Senak, who blogs about industry issues on the Eye on FDA website.

“For some in the industry, the lack of guidance has had a chilling effect on participation in social media and even the Internet, despite the fact that it is a resource to which patients regularly turn for information,” Senak added. “As a result, digital and social media have become a sort of regulatory bogeyman.”

“Healthcare professionals, regulators and pharmaceutical manufacturers all need to overcome their reticence and acknowledge the vital role that they can and should play in contributing to the healthcare conversation,” Aitken said.

Among the IMS survey’s other findings:

  • Wikipedia is the leading single source of health information for patients and healthcare professionals.
  • Younger people “tend to investigate conditions and treatment options online before treatment is started,” IMS noted, “whereas patients of age 50-plus tend to start their treatment first and then seek information online.”

Indeed, noted researchers, “the usage and presence of social media channels ... still lags among the population segment that utilizes healthcare services the most: patients older than 65 years of age and those with multiple chronic conditions.”

“FOR SOME TIME, THE FDA’S OFFICE OF PRESCRIPTION DRUG PROMOTION ... HAS BEEN STRUGGLING TO UNDERSTAND AND RESPOND TO THE REGULATORY CHALLENGES POSED BY NEW EMERGING DIGITAL COMMUNICATIONS PLATFORMS, WITH LITTLE TO SHOW FOR IT.”, MARK SENAK, EYE ON FDA BlOGGER

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