Big Pharma, Social Media, and the Consumer Demand for Dialogue

Social media presence is an integral part of business marketing, an essential platform from which to draw the attention of and establish relationships with consumers. Brands are built online and reputations can also be destroyed based on social media chatter. Organizations big and small are aggressively pursuing strategies that will make them more visible and accessible online. But what about Big Pharma?

Surprisingly, a recent report from the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics reveals that out of the 50 largest drugmakers in the world, only half engage with social media. And yet, more and more patients are turning to online networks to follow new clinical research, share experiences, and find health information. Some companies are afraid to open the floodgates, while others leap into the fray, connecting with patients in innovative and mutually beneficial ways.

What’s holding Big Pharma back?

Tough FDA regulations may be to blame for why some pharmaceutical companies aren’t more involved with virtual communities – particularly those that revolve around drugs they’ve developed and conditions they seek to treat. FDA guidance on how Big Pharma should conduct itself online is confusing and restrictive. Amongst other considerations, the FDA demands that only medical personnel respond to queries, their response must be “scientific” and stick to label information, and be directed to the recipient privately rather than posted in a public forum. With a host of other dos and don’ts, it’s no wonder that many drugmakers remain on social media sidelines.

Listening in while standing out

Interestingly, Big Pharma has developed ways to interact with social media users without stepping on too many toes. Many companies have adopted technologies that enable them to turn social networking sites into ongoing focus groups, with patients and doctors sounding off on different diseases, drugs in development, and issues surrounding pharmaceutical quality assurance. This way, drugmakers can follow discussions that are pertinent to the industry and valuable as a kind of market research. In addition, many companies use “listening” apps that allow them to monitor and aggregate tweets, posts and other online happenings of interest to them.

A new health portal for patients

On February 5, Drugs.com and TrialReach announced that they will collaborate to provide patients with information and access to treatments that are still under development. For some sufferers, wait times associated with pharmaceutical quality control protocols and testing can mean the difference between life and death.  When approved therapies have failed, Drugs.com and TrialReach will give patients the option to research, compare and enroll in ongoing clinical trials. So, although Big Pharma is slow to reach out directly to patients, consumers are finding new inroads to participate in drug discovery and ultimately, take ownership over their own healing.

Do you think enrollment in drug trials represents a positive form of patient-pharma collaboration, even though the therapies may prove ineffective and/or unsafe?