Dianthus Medical Blog Archive

Pharma companies, patients, and social networking

Last week I spent a fascinating day in Oxford at the MedComms Strategic Forum 2010. It was a varied day, in which many aspects of medical communications were discussed. Apart from the ever-welcome opportunity to catch up with old friends, make some new ones, and also to be able to put faces to names I had previously only known in places like Twitter, I took part in some thought provoking exchanges of ideas about how the role of medical communications is evolving.

One theme that was prominent throughout the day was the interactions between pharmaceutical companies and patients. The traditional view of the pharmaceutical industry is that their customers are prescribers, not patients. The pharmaceutical companies sold their drugs to doctors, and what happened after that was not really anything to do with the pharma company. There was general agreement that that concept is outdated, and that in fact the pharmaceutical industry's real customers are patients.

And of course they are.

However, it's not quite as simple as that, as became very clear in a discussion of social networking.

Social networking is all very new, and for an industry as conservative as the pharma industry, a bit scary. Should pharmaceutical companies have Facebook pages and Twitter feeds where they can interact directly with patients? One point that was made was that social networking is nothing new, it is simply a new channel for existing means of communication.

But I'm not sure I agree with that entirely. Existing means of communication in the pharma industry are very much aimed at doctors, and not patients. Once something goes onto a publicly available Facebook page, that changes the equation considerably.  And this is a real problem in the heavily-regulated world of the pharma industry. There are all sorts of rules about what pharma companies can and can't say about their drugs in a forum accessible to patients. Social networking is, by nature, messy and doesn't do a good job at conforming to rules.

Of course, it is possible to have very tightly controlled social networking, in which every new post on a website is thoroughly vetted by lawyers, but I very much doubt that anyone would want to interact with such a site.

It is not clear to me how pharma companies will be able to interact with the patients who use their drugs in a meaningful way via social networking, while staying on the right side of the regulations. Nonetheless, some of them are trying, and I genuinely wish them well. I'm sure more open communication, if someone can figure out how to make it work, would benefit everyone. For example, Janssen and Lilly are active on Twitter, and Pfizer have recently launched a Facebook page. There are many others. I will be fascinated to see how these steps into the social networking world turn out.

There is another problem. Do patients want to talk to pharmaceutical companies anyway? The pharmaceutical industry is held in very low esteem by many (it was mentioned at the meeting that ratings of public trust are now on a par with journalists and politicians, although thankfully still slightly ahead of bankers). Social networking, if handled well, could be a way for some of the trust that has been lost to be regained.

Talking of trust, another session of the meeting was devoted to publications. Much was said about inappropriate influence of industry on publications, a topic on which I have frequently blogged before. While egregious breaches of ethics in publications by pharmaceutical companies are probably rare, they do generate incredibly bad publicity when they happen (and rightly so), and all were agreed that it was important that the med comms community must continue to do everything in their power to ensure that ethical standards were maintained.

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