Pharma gets social: GE Healthcare partners to engage cancer community in live tweetchat

Daniel Ghinn of Creation Healthcare discusses the recent #TacklingCancer tweetchat held by GE healthcare in his monthly ‘Pharma gets social’ article.

(Continued from “Pharma gets social: traditional and social media fuel online row over Merck’s Gardasil“)

“One of the greatest weapons against cancer is information”, says Veronica Botet, Global Digital and Social Media PR Manager at GE Healthcare, which has committed to invest $1 billion over the next five years to expand its cancer diagnostic and research capabilities.

So to mark World Cancer Day 2014 on February 4th, the company hosted a one-hour ‘tweetchat’, a live public conversation on Twitter, in partnership with Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) and moderated by Kathi Apostolidis, VP of European Cancer Patient Coalition (ECPC).

Figure 1: GE Healthcare promotes its #TacklingCancer tweetchat via Instagram

Over the course of the day over 320 participants in 29 countries shared 900 tweets1. Patient advocates, patients, cancer organizations, carers, industry observers, and healthcare professionals joined in the tweetchat. Predominantly, the event brought together a diverse group of stakeholders from the worldwide cancer community.

“The twitterchat was a great opportunity to talk with cancer patients, our members and friends from Europe and other parts of the world and share experiences”, says Apostolidis, herself a cancer survivor and an early e-patient, who discovered a new treatment by searching the Internet before the days of social media and then found a surgeon who would perform it.

“Patient advocates, patients, cancer organizations, carers, industry observers, and healthcare professionals joined in the tweetchat.”

As well as active input from UICC, other cancer organizations actively took part in the #TacklingCancer tweetchat, supporting World Cancer Day’s goal to reduce stigma and dispel myths about cancer. The Canadian Cancer Society contributed with on-topic tweets such as “About 1/3 of all cancers can be prevented by eating well, being active & maintaining a healthy body weight”, and “Women 50-69 should get mammograms every 2 years to find breast cancer early”.

GE Healthcare participated corporately via its GEHealthcare Twitter profile, as did several company staff and other official profiles. Jeff DeMarrais, GE Healthcare’s Chief Communications Officer, took part using his ‘official’ company profile GEHealthcare_HQ; while PR & Communications Manager Allison Cohen was the most active participant using her personal Twitter profile.

Also in the conversation were other healthcare companies with an interest in oncology. Boehringer sent a supportive tweet ahead of the chat, “Great to see @GEHealthcare hosting #TacklingCancer tweetchat 5pm CET for #WorldCancerDay – good luck, hope it goes well”. Lilly’s official European Twitter feed @LillyPadEU took part by sharing views during the chat, ending by sharing a link to its own World Cancer Day blog post.

A risky environment?

Twitter chats hosted by healthcare companies are few and far between. Recent examples include Boehringer Ingelheim’s COPDChat starring Prof. Andrew McIvor, a collaboration between the pharmaceutical company and an emerging HCP Digital Opinion Leader. GE Healthcare is among the more experienced healthcare companies in carrying out live social media engagement, having organised four tweetchats over the past year, as well as regular live video conferences with breast cancer survivors which are shared in real time on Twitter.

Hosting an open conversation on the world’s most active social media platform may seem like a daunting prospect to some. From regulatory compliance to the uncontrollable nature of the conversation, there is much that could go wrong for the unprepared.

“From regulatory compliance to the uncontrollable nature of the conversation, there is much that could go wrong for the unprepared.”

I asked Botet about how the company handled the risks. She told me that it was important to engage compliance teams throughout the initiative:

“We engaged our legal and regulatory team early in the process. Regulatory followed it closely as they are interested to learn more about initiatives taking place in social media. We however did not foresee any risk in organizing this activity as the topic of discussion was not related to our commercial activity or our products.”

Botet says she was confident that the engaged community would help keep the conversation on track, but that the team were prepared in advance for what could go wrong. “Other types of risks associated with this type of event are hashtag hijacking or someone trolling the conversation”, she says. “While we are confident the engaged participants of the chat will help get back on track to the topic of conversation, we were prepared in advance – which is necessary given the dynamic nature of social media conversations”.

Partnerships build trust

Botet says that working with external partners was an important part of the tweetchat’s success. “Working with UICC as well as Kathi Apostolidis from ECPC helps to build the trust of the audience“, she says, adding that partners’ expertise adds to the effectiveness of the conversation: “The quality of the conversation and the outcomes of the tweetchat increase, because you know you have experts with deep knowledge on the topic of the discussion contributing to the conversation.”

Apostolidis agrees on the value of partnership. “The collaboration was great“, she says, adding that she is keen to build on the experience. “We would like to see all our partners engaging next year. Cancer needs many partners working closely, with dedication and compassion together to bring results starting from clinicians, nurses, oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, pharmaceutical companies, researchers, geneticists, biobanks, cancer registries…

The tweetchat topic, ‘Debunking Cancer Myths’, was suggested by UICC. Botet says that this provided an opportunity for the organization and GE Healthcare to reinforce important messages like the fact that healthy lifestyle choices can reduce your risk of certain cancers. “Empowering patients through education on these important facts is beneficial for all stakeholders“, she says.

“Botet says that working with external partners was an important part of the tweetchat’s success.”

On-going engagement

Botet says that the #TacklingCancer tweetchat forms part of GE Healthcare’s on-going engagement with the cancer community. “GE Healthcare runs a number of successful global campaigns that allow people from all over the world to share their story, show their support to those whose lives are affected by cancer and spread the word on the importance of early diagnosis“, she says. “We look forward to continuing to support global awareness and education activities like World Cancer Day.”

For Apostolidis, the tweetchat made a personal impact. “I was amazed and honoured by the participation of so many persons from all over the world, patients, survivors, doctors, families and carers“, she says, adding that she wants to encourage more patients and patient organizations to take part in future tweetchats: “I realized once more the wealth of knowledge, commitment, willingness to share of patients and survivors“.

With commitment from corporations and individuals to keep sharing information via social media, the online fight against cancer looks set to continue to gain momentum.


1. Data from Creation Healthcare


The next article in this series by Daniel Ghinn ‘Pharma Gets Social: Eight years of Twitter for Pharma – from birth to adolescence’ can be viewed here.


About the author:

Daniel Ghinn is CEO of Creation Healthcare, a digital research consultancy to the healthcare industry. He tweets at @Engagementstrat.

Closing thought: How can healthcare companies prepare for risks when planning a tweetchat?

Adherence: Behaviour explained by evidence