AstraZeneca boldly steps into the Twitterverse

Paul Tunnah

pharmaphorum

While many of us in Europe were safely tucked up in bed during the early hours of this morning, something changed in the world of pharma. AstraZeneca ran the first ever open online Twitter discussion session (often referred to as a “Tweetchat”) with the world between 8pm and 9pm US Eastern time (2am to 3am CET). The session had been announced on the AZ Health Connections website as a way to “raise awareness about helping patients save money through prescription savings programs”, to be led by Jennifer McGovern, the Director of the “AZ&amp,Me” programme focussed on this area.

website as a way to “raise awareness about helping patients save money through prescription savings programs”, to be led by Jennifer McGovern, the Director of the “AZ&amp,Me” programme focussed on this area.

Tweetchats are becoming an ever more popular way for group discussions to take place online, allowing people to either quietly observe from the sidelines or dip into the conversation as and when they choose. Such meetings work by designating a particular “hashtag” to represent the session, which is added to every Tweet to allow people to follow the topic, resulting in an associated stream of questions, replies, comments and reTweets. As Andrew Spong  (who runs the ‘healthcare social media Europe’ Tweetchat every Friday with the hashtag #hcsmeu) succinctly puts it, the result is akin to a cocktail party, where multiple individual conversations take place in the same place.

However, it quickly became apparent yesterday in the build up to AstraZeneca’s event, which was designated with the hashtag #rxsave,that some disgruntled patient advocates wanted to gatecrash the party with an entirely different agenda. AstraZeneca is still fighting many lawsuits around alleged off-label promotion of its antipsychotic medicine Seroquel, which has been linked with increased incidence of potentially harmful side effects such as diabetes, weight gain and hyperglycaemia. To date, AstraZeneca is reported to have made settlement payments of almost $200m, with potentially much more to come.

 

“At one point, it seemed like the #rxsave discussion might even be cancelled…”

 

So, preceding the session #rxsave Tweets were being flung around asking AstraZeneca whether it would be addressing these issues, admit to past errors and whether the whole Tweetchat was merely a PR exercise. As an observer of the unfolding situation, I have to say things got pretty heated with claims and counterclaims being thrown between the patient advocates and those supporting the AstraZeneca initiative. At one point, it seemed like the #rxsave discussion might even be cancelled and AstraZeneca had to add a disclaimer to the session announcement stating that it would not be deviating from the discussion topic of prescription savings programmes.

It would be easy to dismiss the angry Tweets about Seroquel as inappropriate and, in some cases, nothing more than personal attacks. However, for those individuals who have experienced the side effects of Seroquel or are close to those who have, the anger is entirely understandable, particularly where they feel the drug was prescribed inappropriately. It is also easy to say that what matters is what happens moving forwards, that they should move on, but for the patients who suffer such side effects these will continue to be a burden for the rest of their lives. So it is important that such voices are heard, even where they are emotively expressed.

AstraZeneca must have been aware of the potential for this to blow up in its face, especially given the ongoing litigation. However, Jennifer McGovern did the only thing she could under such circumstances and demonstrated the power of the Tweetchat as an engagement channel in the process, addressing just the questions that were on-topic and, more importantly, asking questions of the assembled audience of the public and healthcare professionals. However, a nod was given to the ‘Seroquel’ voices early on by referring questions about specific medicines and diseases elsewhere.

 

“An early estimate suggests there were well over 500 Tweets tagged with #rxsave during the session…”

 

An early estimate suggests there were well over 500 Tweets tagged with #rxsave during the session, but only around 30 of them were from AstraZeneca. So for anyone who advocates the approach of “listen first” when it comes to social media, Jennifer seemed to get the balance about right. Consequently, the Tweetchat served as a useful piece of “consumer research” for AstraZeneca, addressing issues ranging from how to raise awareness of prescription savings programmes through to how to implement them more effectively and what the future may hold for them.

And whilst direct questions around Seroquel and associated litigation may not have been addressed, AstraZeneca did interact with at least one of those patient voices and acknowledged their presence. The cynical observer would say it’s easy to imagine a lawyer sat next to Jennifer screening every answer, but unfortunately the litigious society we live in makes it almost impossible to directly address such issues in an open forum, plus it would have diverted the discussion from the desired topic in hand.

So, from the perspective of AstraZeneca, Jennifer gained valuable feedback and insight from the audience around how to improve the prescription savings programmes. Many of the general audience also gave positive feedback on the session, feeling it to be at last a way of directly getting pharma to listen to some ideas. As for the patient advocates, whilst they may not have got the answers, admission or apologies they wanted, they did at least make a very visible point about their perspective. This will serve to highlight the strength of feeling about the issue to AstraZeneca and reinforce the point that pharma needs to keep its house in order if it is to engage more frequently in such direct social media engagement.

 

“Overall, it was a brave move by AstraZeneca, seemed to work well and sets the bar for other companies to follow.”

 

Overall, it was a brave move by AstraZeneca, seemed to work well and sets the bar for other companies to follow. Such direct engagement will ultimately lead to pharma having a better understanding of its customer base (patients and healthcare professionals) and allow their voices to be heard. It won’t change any of the mistakes of the past, but with such direct engagement, pharma can hopefully build a better future for the group that really matters in all of this – the patients.

And as a final request from all those bleary-eyed Europeans, maybe the next one can be hosted a little earlier?

To check out the #rxsave Twitter stream click here or visit a transcript of the session online here (courtesy of @foxepractice on Twitter)

About the author:

Paul Tunnah is Founder and Managing Director of pharmaphorum, the the dynamic online information and discussion portal for the pharmaceutical industry featuring news, articles, events / company listings and online discussion. For queries he can be reached through the site contact form.

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