Can pharma enhance patient care through social media?

This house believes patient care will be enhanced through pharma’s involvement in social media“. So read the title of the debate I was invited to take part in at the PIPA Annual Conference 2010 on 5th July.

I was especially excited to take part in this debate, not only because of the opportunity to participate alongside an excellent panel of experts on the subjects of pharmaceutical companies, social media and regulatory affairs – Andrew Spong, Klynn Alibocus, and Sam Temple-Scotton. Even more so because the debate was hosted by PIPA, the Pharmaceutical Information and Pharmacovigilance Association.

In their own words, ‘PIPA is the professional organisation for individuals who are involved in the provision and management of information and those involved in the fulfillment of regulatory requirements relating to drug safety‘. In other words, the debate was hosted by regulatory, medical information and pharmacovigilence professionals. The fact that such an organisation placed this important topic on its Annual Conference agenda is an indicator that the questions being asked by pharma about how to engage through emerging two-way channels such as social media are being taken seriously.

At Creation Healthcare, one of the most enjoyable, if sometimes challenging aspects of our work is when we get to bring together internal stakeholders from across a pharmaceutical company – communicators, marketers, legal and medical colleagues, to develop healthcare engagement strategies embracing emerging channels. And from my experiences of this I know that amongst visionary pharmaceutical companies it is possible for these colleagues to strategise proactively together to achieve real health outcomes through innovative use of social media and other emerging channels.

Sarah Dunnett, Senior Medical Affairs Manager at Baxter Healthcare and PIPA President, chaired the debate and asked for a pre-debate vote. 42 conference delegates agreed with the motion (albeit some with caveats) whilst 21 disagreed, to at least some extent.

Not one to miss the opportunity to encourage healthy discussion about healthcare and social media, Andrew Spong kicked off the debate, playing devil’s advocate as he argued against the motion and highlighted some favourite objections including adverse event reports.

I followed with a brief outline of seven examples of pharma’s involvement in social media, outlining how each example demonstrated the potential for enhancing patient care. I included some of my favourite examples such as Johnson & Johnson’s Health Channel on Youtube, UCB’s partnership with PatientsLikeMe, Boehringer Ingelheim’s sponsorship of a Tudiabetes video, and AstraZeneca’s engagement with healthcare professionals through doctors.net.uk.

Sam Temple-Scotton then supported the case against the motion and pointed out that pharma is struggling to keep up with the level of change in digital channels.

Finally Klynn Alibocus made some excellent points about the breadth of ways in which pharmaceutical companies can enhance patient care through social media, drawing the debate away from marketing to consider other areas including clinical trials recruitment.

In the discussion that followed between the panel and PIPA delegates, some key issues were debated including trust, transparency, responsibility, stakeholder partnerships, business process change, and resourcing. Many of the most challenging issues were raised and debated. From my perspective, there was general agreement about points including:

  • Pharma is generally mistrusted and this makes social media engagement difficult; but social media might play a role in enhancing trust through transparency
  • Given the amount of discussion taking place by patients using social media about health issues, pharma has a responsibility to get involved
  • Regulatory constraints make it difficult, but not impossible, to plan proactive engagement
  • Avoiding adverse events reports by not listening to social media conversations is not the answer
  • Successful social media engagement may require changes to the way pharma operates

Finally, a post-debate vote revealed the extent to which we had convinced PIPA delegates: after all the discussion, just 39 delegates agreed to any extent with the motion – a reduction of 3 – whilst 23 disagreed. On the face of it, it appeared we had done more to convince pharmacovigilence colleagues not to support pharma’s role in social media! But all in all I believe the debate was healthy, timely and relevant and I hope will encourage some of the PIPA delegates to take a proactive approach to working through some of the challenges with colleagues in their businesses. I am still reassured that 63% of pharmacovigilence professionals believe pharma’s role in social media will enhance patient care.

I understand that a more comprehensive report on the debate will be published in PIPA’s journal, PIPELINE. In the mean time, feel free to tweet me with your comments at @EngagementStrat.

Daniel Ghinn

Daniel Ghinn is Editor of Healthcare Engagement Strategy and CEO of Creation Healthcare, the online market research consultancy for healthcare. He is a prolific writer and speaker on emerging trends healthcare engagement in the digital age.