Medcomms Forum 2010: Communicating the future

Paul Tunnah


This is the second article I’ve posted on my own website recently so apologies for being a little self-indulgent. No, we’re not running short of content (exactly the opposite!) but there have been some really interesting events recently and the day after attending DigiPharm Europe 2010 I was lucky enough to also attend the “Strategic Medcomms Forum 2010”.

Network Pharma, run by Peter Llewellyn (@networkpharma on Twitter), organised the event to be held in Oxford (UK) on the 30th September. The venue was the University Museum of Natural History, where it is possible to learn about a multitude of species, right back to bone models of dinosaurs, so a suitable place for discussing the evolution of medical communications. One could argue that this area within pharma is being impacted the most by the age of digital and social media, but the topics discussed resonate far beyond this.

In order to reflect the conversational engagement found in any forum, Peter wisely steered the event away from a presentation format and manoeuvred it more towards a group discussion with the audience, focussing on several key issues in the medical communications area. The format was therefore four one-hour (or thereabouts) discussion sessions involving an expert panel bouncing arguments to and fro with the attendees. The result was a lot of constructive dialogue that seemed to keep everyone engaged throughout the day, a format that other events organisers should take note of.

With the experienced Professor Trevor Jones CBE (Director of Allergan Inc. and active board member with a number of other biopharma companies) ably chairing, the four sessions did not provide all the answers and actually raised even more questions, but this was as expected. Indeed, I have no doubt that the issues raised from the day will continue to be bounced around until next year, hopefully with some progression in the meantime.

Each session kicked off with a short presentation from the Lead and I will provide just a very brief summary for each, but would recommend checking out the event site at (which includes a video of the live event) or perusing the Twitter stream at #medcomms for more detail.

Session 1: The changing landscape

Panel: Chaired by Dr. Leo Francis (Publicis Medical Education Group) with Dr. Richard Smith (Public Library of Science) and Dr. Alex Wyke (PatientView)


“Maintaining wellness is far more cost efficient than treating sickness, but patient compliance is pivotal to the success of both aspects.”

The first session was introduced with a postulation that the only true customer for pharma now is the payer, leading into a review of the changes the industry is facing. As we all know, pharma is having to deviate from its traditional business model of selling to doctors, but it is not just the payer that has power in 2010, the voice of the patients is also rising to the fore.

In fact, much of the discussion centred on how medical communications plays a critical role in liaison with the patient. Maintaining wellness is far more cost efficient than treating sickness, but patient compliance is pivotal to the success of both aspects. Two key messages emerged for me from this session. Firstly, that patient-reported outcomes could, and perhaps should, play a much more significant role in clinical trial design in the future. Secondly, that drug information could be improved to aid in compliance through clearer guidance on usage and side-effects.

This broad overview of the changing landscape set the scene well for the rest of the day.

Session 2: The continuing evolution of Medical Education and the place of CME

Panel: Chaired by Chris Stevenson (Haymarket) with Dr. Tim Ringrose (, Professor Robin Stevenson (European Board for Accreditation in Pneumology) and Dr. Monica Shaw (Shire Pharmaceuticals)

Chris Stevenson has written on pharmaphorum previously about the need for adequate disclosure around whether medical education is independent or with a promotional slant, so it was no surprise to see this session focus on this issue. In a slightly tongue in cheek statement Chris reinforced his concerns with the comment “you can’t be a little bit pregnant,” to reflect such inherent bias.

Dr. Tim Ringrose made the valid point that a positioning as being independent must be coupled with transparency to be taken seriously, talking more of the external providers. The real challenge here though is a perception, for right or wrong, that programmes sponsored by the industry must inherently have a promotional angle or bias. Whilst many would argue that this supposition is itself incorrect, there is perhaps a deeper issue around that matter of who would pay for such CME activity if pharma did not?

However, the nature of successful CME programmes was also reviewed, with the suggestion that enabling peer-to-peer learning is much more powerful than some traditional didactic programmes. This statement is something that was certainly supported by the format for the Medcomms Forum itself, but is also observed in the increasing use of social media, a point that neatly lead into the first session after lunch on this very subject!

Session 3: The paradigm shift, let’s get social

Panel: Chaired by Dr. Andrew Spong (Nexus and Healthcare Social Media Europe) with Dr. Annabel Bentley (BUPA), Alex Butler (Janssen) and Neil Crump (Aurora)

Those who are active pharma Twitterers will no doubt be familiar with the aforementioned panel leading this session, at least by their Twitter names of @andrewspong, @doctorblogs (Annabel Bentley), @Alex__Butler and @aurorahealthpr (Neil Crump). In an interesting session that started with some of the typical hot issues over whether pharma can and should be using social media tools, discussion became quite animated with some very different perspectives being presented. Indeed, the range stems from the view that big pharma has more to lose than gain from social media right now (therefore it should avoid it) through to the view of innovators such as Alex Butler, who recently launched a Facebook page for psoriasis sufferers through his role at Janssen.

But discussion quickly moved onto the critical importance of the patient in pharma, especially as social media has opened the door for them to have a much stronger voice. The message from the social media advocates was that whether you like it or loathe it, patients are speaking and pharma would do well to listen. Andrew Spong highlighted that if you do nothing else it is worth following vocal patients through Twitter such as @ePatientDave and @rawarrior to understand what they are saying.


“The message from the social media advocates was that whether you like it or loathe it, patients are speaking and pharma would do well to listen.”


Session 4: Defining the legitimate role of scientific communications between industry and stakeholders

Panel: Chaired by Charlie Buckwell (McCann Healthcare Worldwide) with Emma D’Arcy (medpharmaconnect), Dr. John Gonzalez (AstraZeneca) and Chris Graf (Wiley-Blackwell)

Charlie Buckwell kicked the final session off with a lead-in that asked questions around good publication practice, the role of peer review and even the possibility of an evidence-based critique of industry practices in this space. This generated debate on a whole raft of issues, including the challenges of speed of information release versus ensuring proper review and interpretation of data. The industry bias issue raised its head again, but was countered by the perspective that many publications demand to see the raw data to conduct their own assessment.

For me, a highlight of this session was a vigorous and passionate defence of the industry, led by Emma D’Arcy who supported her statement that the perception of pharma from the public and scientific community was actually quite good with mention of recent research from the Manhatten Institute. Dr. John Gonzalez reinforced this view, raising the claim that media tends to focus on the negatives and citing his own personal experience of taking time to write a counterpoint to an industry attack featured in a major newspaper, which was never published by the publication. It was hard to not sympathise with his frustration here.

Finally, talk turned to the issue of opening access to medical literature, particularly for patients who wish to review the latest publications pertinent to their disease area. This one is clearly a hot potato, with the suggestion that publishers are looking at ways to achieve this without damaging their overarching business model counterpointed by demands that patients need this information now.


To summarise four such lively debates in one paragraph would be impossible and I would simply suggest once again that you check out the video feed of the sessions at to draw your own conclusions. However, it is clear that in the age of sharing information, medical communications has a role more vital than ever.

So well done Peter Llewellyn for organising the event in such a way as to publicise these issues and allow such constructive discussion. If such debate continues, we may see some exciting developments in the world of medical communications that will yield benefits for all stakeholder groups. After all, we don’t want to end up like those dinosaurs!

About the author:

Paul Tunnah is Founder and Managing Director of pharmaphorum, the online information, discussion and networking site for pharma executives. For queries he can be reached through the site contact form.

The Strategic MedComms Forum 2010 was organised by Network Pharma, with the full Twitter stream from the event available through #medcomms. You can also visit to read the official summary of the event and see a video recording of proceedings or follow Network Pharma (Peter Llewellyn) on Twitter.

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