Engaging patients through Social Media


IMS Health Thought Leadership look at how Social Media has transformed the role of patients in healthcare, and how pharma can overcome barriers to deeper engagement.

Social Media has introduced substantial and pervasive changes to communication between organisations, communities, and individuals. In the case of healthcare, these changes are not limited to isolated patient issues but are fundamentally impacting all steps of the patient journey. The ability to obtain and discuss relevant information, experiences and opinions, openly and in real time, have changed the way patients are involved in and influence their disease journey.

Google and Wikipedia as the starting point for online education needs

Wikipedia is a leading source of healthcare information and, due to its high ranking on search engines, very often the starting point for patients seeking self-education online. In our recent study on the usage of social media, we could observe a direct correlation between Wikipedia and medicine use (on ATC-3 class level) for a large number of disease areas, showing a statistically significant correlation. This relationship between online information access and real world product sales suggests that healthcare players need to consider how online information influences decision processes. It also raises the need for an integrated approach to be defined between online and offline interactions, fitting overall commercial strategy.

Age remains one of the biggest differentiation factors for social media.

Age is one of the few differentiating factors for the usage of social networking sites, where usage is independent of gender, education, income or other forms of social distinction.i Differential utilisation by age groups will diminish over coming years, as 'digital natives' increase their involvement and influence professionally and privately within their networks, grow older and become more likely to suffer from diseases. Companies that connect with the digital natives while they age, and adapt to the new channels will have a competitive edge.

"Three main challenges have caused pharma to lag in social media adoption – legal, technical and internal structures"

Companies are still struggling to implement social media strategies

The rise of social media is an increasingly important topic for many pharmaceutical companies. When we know that Facebook is reported as the fourth most popular source of health information in the UK,ii why is the pharmaceutical industry at large, still struggling to implement social media into their general commercial operations?

There are three main challenges that have caused pharmaceutical companies to lag in terms of social media adoption:

• Legal

• Technical

• Internal structures

Legal uncertainties are being reduced

The pharmaceutical industry generally has to operate in a very regulated environment. But the utilisation of social media, until the release of the draft FDA guidelines at the beginning of this year, has not been specifically regulated, which caused some concerns about the usage of social media. Additionally, the question of a company's responsibility for reporting adverse drug reaction (ADR) claims generated by users of social media has been a further source of concern, and another reason for slower uptake of social media. However these concerns can now be tackled by smart technology tools, reducing the risk and workload from ADR reporting coming from social media.

Technological hurdles can be overcome

Social Media data by itself is a very unstructured source of information, and when looking at the volume of interaction on some of the channels, it becomes obvious that there is a big data technology challenge. In order to create relevant market insights, technological facilities must be in place to structure and analyse the data.

All of the above hurdles are addressable in today's world, and should not hinder pharmaceutical companies being where there stakeholders are. However, there is an additional hurdle - internal structure - which is one of the reasons why pharma lags other industries in terms of successful utilisation of social media.

Internal Structures remain the biggest challenge

The biggest challenge is to bring about the underlying change in communication approach that comes with social media. Historically, pharma has been very good at using (depending on the legal framework in each country) print media, television and radio approaches to generally communicate with stakeholder groups. All of these channels are uni-directional communication channels, with no interaction between the author and the consumer (and what the author said was strictly controlled by ethical and legal constraints). Social media brings a general change in communication. A mass audience is being reached with the ability to comment, share and respond to information received over this channel. In short, all of these channels are multi-directional.

This change in communication approach, from uni-directional broadcasting to multi-directional engagement needs internal buy-in and structures that can support these ways of working. Responding to comments or replies need to be conducted in a timely manner, which in social media terms means hours, not days or weeks. In order to achieve this, shorter approval processes and social media guidelines need to be in place.

"The change from uni-directional broadcasting to multi-directional engagement needs internal buy-in and structures to support these ways of working"

Pharmaceutical companies must become experts on social communication

One of the key challenges is that social media is, independent of the channels being utilised, a fundamental change in the way we communicate through technology. The "social" aspect of general, but also healthcare related, communication will increase further over the next years and decades. In order to remain in touch and relevant to their customers, pharmaceutical companies must become experts in new communication channels and especially in the new approach to communication.

Listening remains the first step to a successful social media approach

Social media can be leveraged to provide qualitative insights for market measures. If done correctly it is a major asset, since information is unprompted, relatively inexpensive to obtain, and reflects market realities. In order to design a successful social media engagement, pharmaceutical companies need to understand their online target group. Listening to social media conversations allows companies to understand unmet needs, competitive environments, sentiment towards brands and companies, wording used by patients and much more. All of these insights can of course be transferred to communicating in the "offline" world, and gives companies a competitive edge. A second step is the broadcasting (uni-directional) of information to the wider public and this is followed by utilising the media in the way it was intended; engaging people, aided by technology, in the most natural, 'social' way.


I. Fox S, Duggan M. Health Online 2013. Health. 2013; Available from: http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Health-online.aspx.

II. Dawson J. Doctors join patients in going online for healthinformation. New Media Age. 2010.



About the authors:

Thomas Altmann has several years of experience as a consultant to the pharmaceutical industry first working in the IMS Health Commercial Effectiveness Services (CES) Team in Central Europe, followed by working as Business Analyst for the Business Unit Heads Central Europe and East Europe. He is currently Senior Consultant in the IMS Health European Thought Leadership team, providing pharmaceutical clients with comprehensive and critical guidance in the changing healthcare environment.

Daniel Rosen works as a consultant in IMS Health's Thought Leadership team, supporting the creation of market leading perspectives on a wide range of industry relevant issues. He has authored multiple papers on the pharmaceutical industry with a focus on the use of technology in healthcare and building success in sub-Saharan Africa.

Sarah Rickwood has 20 years' experience as a consultant to the pharmaceutical industry, having worked in Accenture's pharmaceutical strategy practice prior to joining IMS Management Consulting.

In her time in IMS, Sarah has played a key role in developing the Launch Excellence Thought Leadership and IMS's Launch Excellence thought leadership studies and Launch Readiness offerings. In this capacity she has advised companies on the launch of current and potential blockbusters in many therapy areas and countries.

As the Director of Thought Leadership for the European Business Units, Sarah and her team have developing new Thought Leadership on launch, biosimilars, commercial analytics, healthcare system changes, blockbusters, the top 10 company of the future and uptake and access of innovative medicines.

Have your say: Do you think pharma understands social media, and how it differs from traditional communication channels?

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29 May, 2014