Pharma: shouldn’t every day be Social Media Day?

Christian Gardner, Director, Media Services at pharmaphorum marks Social Media Day by looking at pharma’s progress in engaging patients and healthcare professionals via social media.

Did you know that today is Social Media Day? I know what you’re thinking, with the advent of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and all the rest, surely every day is social media day?

Well, despite this seemingly constant activity, it’s good to step back once in a while and think about how we use social media, and how it applies to conversations in healthcare.

In particular, I want to talk about the importance of communicating via social media clearly, concisely – and most importantly – consistently. This is important for everyone, but for the pharmaceutical industry it’s critical.

We often communicate – not just on social media – in peaks and troughs. The pharma industry tends to deluge its audiences with messages around key events, congresses and milestones. But between these activities, it can sometimes feel to our audiences like someone turned a switch off somewhere.

I think it’s fair to say that pharma is still lagging behind other sectors in how it uses digital and social media. Regulations (or a fear / lack of understanding of them) have played a role in this, but, happily, that’s a post for another day. During the last few years I’ve watched pharma’s engagement in social media mature: some companies are still tentatively dipping their toes in the digital waters; a brave few have embraced social media, often to their competitive advantage. The bottom line is, things are getting better.

So how is social and digital media being used most effectively to regularly engage with stakeholders? Here are a few observations.


As the ’empowered patient’ becomes more prominent, pharma must find ways to communicate and work collaboratively with them

Focus on Patients

Of course, pharma has to be very careful not to promote medicines when engaging with patients online, but there are no rules to say that it can’t communicate more broadly. Many companies refer to themselves as ‘patient-centric’, but what does this actually mean? And why doesn’t this come through in much of their social media efforts?

At a time when the ’empowered patient’ or ‘ePatient’ is becoming more prominent, particularly online, pharma should be thinking of more ways to communicate and work collaboratively with patients and patient groups. But before any of this can happen pharma needs to do something very important – listen to what is being said.

For example, in many rare diseases, there is a distinct lack of information on social media for patients, compared to something like breast cancer. Granted, breast cancer affects more people, but the need for reliable information for patients remains, regardless of the disease.

I see an opportunity here for pharma to partner with existing ePatients to create content, where there is mutual benefit. Partnering with ePatients not only adds credibility (they’ve been through it), it also eases some of the compliance concerns from a pharma perspective.

It’s also time leaders within the industry get better at explaining what they mean by patient-centricity. One thing is certain, it can’t be just another corporate buzzword. What sort of commitments and changes to how pharma works does it really represent? On top of this, there needs to be some definition of what success looks like.

I was very happy to see some evidence of this relationship moving forward at last week’s eyeforpharma Patient Summit 2015 in London. But there was still feedback from attendees that some of the challenges being discussed were the same as those from a decade ago.


Some of the most promising pharma case studies included initiatives around gathering qualitative feedback from patients during clinical trials (AstraZeneca), raising awareness around back pain to ensure quicker referrals and / or prevention of disease (AbbVie) and genuine interaction with patients in Spain via corporate social media channels (Leo Pharma).

Opportunities for continuing engagement

Healthcare congresses are evolving at an astonishing pace. Many are now seeing the number of people following via social media far exceeding those physically present at these meetings. This is down, in part, to people simply not being able to travel as much. It’s also the result of increasing technological capabilities.

According to Symplur, the amount of tweeting at ASCO 2015 was not just higher than the previous year, but greater than any other medical congress to date. Over 13,000 people took part in the conversation – this represents a massive shift for ASCO, and will undoubtedly influence the future direction of this and other congresses.

Pharma is responding to this change by upping its digital and social activity around these events, providing those attending and those following with ‘live coverage’ via its social channels. This was evidenced by one of Mike Thompson’s tweets during ASCO (see below; follow him on Twitter here). There’s also excellent data coverage provided from investors, trade journalists, HCPs and the medical societies.


We’re also starting to see more representation from patients at medial congresses, although some medical societies are grappling with compliance issues around patients and the general public attending scientific symposia and data presentations. Nonetheless it’s clear there is no going back to the ‘closed shop’ approach for these events, and patient participation is likely to continue to grow and mature.

Pharma therefore has a fantastic opportunity to build relations with healthcare professionals, the medical community and even ePatients during these meetings. While recent progress is encouraging, the industry needs to make engagement part of its routine – and not just something to do around the big events. That way the conversations and relationships can be more open, trusting and truly constructive.

About the author

Christian Gardner is Director, Media Services at pharmaphorum connect – a digital content and engagement consultancy within the pharmaphorum media group.

Christian previously worked in Global Corporate and R&D comms roles at AstraZeneca. He now provides consultancy services to pharmaceutical clients on effective social media strategies, the creation of engaging digital content and how best to leverage healthcare events and medical congresses virtually.