Social Media in the Pharmaceutical Industry

Recently, I was a delegate at the SMi Social Media in the Pharmaceutical Industry conference in London. It was well attended by experts from industry, the NHS (UK National Health Service) and patient groups, and delegates benefited from a range of engaging presentations and lively discussions. Here are some of my highlights and points for reflection.

The role of social media in healthcare

The role of social media, and more widely, digital media, in healthcare was explored from a number of perspectives during the conference.

It was clear that emerging channels could bring great benefits to patients and the NHS. For example, as described by Carl Plant in his presentation on NHS Local (a range of digital services for people inthe UK’s West Midlands) , engaging digitally with patients could provide inputs to service design, as well as valuable feedback on service quality and accessibility. When patients are able to influence how care is delivered, it is likely that the outcome is a better-targeted healthcare system, with more efficient use of financial resources.

Figure 1: The NHS Local website, a suite of digital services for patients and healthcare staff in the West Midlands of the UK


Carl explained that pharmaceutical companies can assist the NHS in its digital journey through building up an evidence base, regarding the effectiveness of various digital channels, collaborating on projects and providing training.

Patient oriented groups showed how digital media have helped boost engagement and support fundraising. Charmaine Harris of the British Heart Foundation demonstrated that whilst most income for charities is from legacies and wills, social media fundraising has an excellent ROI compared to traditional channels such as television. A recent campaign, the “Mending Broken Hearts” Appeal, which relates to research into heart regeneration, includes a successful video (shown below); the charity’s Facebook page has nearly 100,000 fans, and the Twitter account over 12,000 followers.

Figure 2: British Heart Foundation YouTube channel, showing the “Mending Broken Hearts” video, also screened as a TV advert in the UK


Deborah Mason, of Talkhealth, an organisation that provides a range of condition-specific patient network sites, presented an outline of how healthcare should move from a biomedical model to a social model. According to Sir John Oldham, the UK Department of Health National Clinical Lead for Quality and Productivity, such as change is necessary to prevent financial collapse of health service, and can be facilitated by the pharmaceutical industry, through knowledge transfer to patients, allowing for greater rates of self care.


Despite the potential benefits, there are challenges at all levels regarding the use of social media in healthcare. Firstly, there are technical limitations. Many NHS and pharmaceutical companies are subject to software and hardware restrictions – NHS computers do not include sound cards, and most industry computers use outdated internet browsers. Such issues are widespread (delegates had almost universally been affected by them), and they prevent innovative digital campaigns from reaching their audiences, and also, in some cases, from being viewed by the teams that originated the ideas. As digital engagement increasingly becomes a part of everyday work for many in the pharmaceutical industry and the NHS, employees are using their smart phones to work – which raises security issues.

Even where workarounds can be found for technical problems, there are deeply entrenched cultural issues that may need to be addressed on a case by case basis. A panel discussion including representatives from the NHS (Tim Lloyd, Alex Talbott) highlighted how each NHS Primary Care Trust (PCT – responsible for planning the health care for a given region) has a different approach to digital engagement, and this is largely determined by the attitude of the CEO. Some PCTs embrace emerging channels, whereas in other trusts, digital engagement is viewed with suspicion, or simply not prioritised. Alex described how demonstrating to PCT CEOs that their peers are connected digitally can be the first step in changing attitudes.

Finally, those organisations – whether NHS or industry – with an interest in engaging digitally must base their initiatives on insights and strategy, rather than simply setting up a Facebook page or Twitter account to “keep up with the times”. Otherwise, they risk investing in “me-too” programmes, which bring little benefit, and thus little return. The ideal digital media campaign addresses a well-defined need, and does so in a user-friendly and innovative manner.


In August, all Facebook profile walls will be open for comments. This presents a dilemma for those pharmaceutical companies who have tentatively been using social media– either leave Facebook to avoid unwanted comments and potential difficulties, or embrace full 2-way communication. This is another example of how working with digital media requires a considered approach. It should not be an “add-on” activity, but integrated into an organisation’s overall strategy. To be effective, a digital strategy must take into account the anticipated technological and cultural hurdles, and companies should only reach out to patients and partners via social media if they are committed to engagement.

However, those healthcare stakeholders that do wish to engage digitally could be at the leading edge of an evolutionary change – if not a revolution, which could help to safeguard the future of healthcare provision and improve health outcomes. The inspirational presentations and discussions at this summer’s SMi event demonstrated once again that there is a role for forward-looking pharmaceutical companies in this process.

Creation Healthcare works with pharmaceutical and healthcare organizations, helping them to successfully innovate with emerging channels in a regulated environment. To find out how you could benefit by working with Creation Healthcare, contact us.


Marie-Claire Wilson

Marie-Claire Wilson studied medicine at King’s College, Cambridge and University College London before embarking on an international healthcare consulting career. Prior to joining Creation Healthcare in 2010, Marie-Claire’s experience included roles with Accenture and Tribal Newchurch, working with both pharmaceutical and NHS clients in areas including process and organisation design, business analysis and planning, sales and marketing strategy. Fluent in Russian and Czech, Marie-Claire’s experience supports Creation Healthcare’s insights into these emerging healthcare markets. Since joining Creation Healthcare, she has played a key role with major pharmaceutical clients, and her work has included leading and presenting online research to inform international digital strategies for specialty care and rare disease areas.