Pharma: time to take a dose of digital

In pharmaphorum’s digital and social media themed month we hear from EFPIA on pharma’s use of social media and the importance of joining the increasing online conversations.

Without question, the digital age is shaping the way individuals around the world interact with one another. Social media platforms have transformed engagement in all areas – including healthcare. The pharmaceutical industry is no exception, as it has begun to take notice of the conversation possibilities social media has to offer as well as the abundance of information available online. Many companies still seem hesitant to engage digitally, however, or are neglecting to devote the necessary resources to expand their digital programmes. True, hurdles exist in social media engagement – and there is reason to be cautious – but the opportunities offered by digital engagement are too good to pass up.

More and more patients, physicians, researchers and other stakeholders in the healthcare field are becoming increasingly digitally savvy. To put things in perspective: A new Pew Internet research shows that health info is the third most popular activity online, after emailing and search across the generations for 2010. A report written in collaboration with business intelligence company SAS states, “the amount of patient insights available on the Internet is virtually limitless. Patients are freely expressing their opinions about their medication and health management experiences”.

“…health info is the third most popular activity online…”

It’s obvious that the pharmaceutical industry has much to gain by participating in social media. Thus far, however, the bulk of activity in the market as a whole seems to be focused on social media listening – as detailed in a recent report from Best Practices, LLC, Pharma Social Media Listening: Benchmarking Innovative Practices in the Healthcare Industry. Attempts to actively engage with patients and other healthcare stakeholder groups via social media seem to be limited at this point.

Here is a list of pharma companies who have already started to embrace the advantages of blogging, online communities and other social media tools. However, across the industry, great discrepancies exist between companies and their level of digital savvy – as revealed in a recent DT Associates study ranking the top global pharmaceutical firms on their digital transformation efforts, Digital Excellence in the Global Pharmaceutial Industry in 2014. Among the traits setting the leaders apart from the companies lagging behind in digital excellence, according to the report, are strong change management skills and a strong vision to guide digital programmes.

It’s time for the industry to take into account the ways their audience is already communicating and give more attention as a whole to social media. What are the reasons for pharma to be a part of the conversation?

• Gain valuable insight into patient populations and learn about their experiences via direct accounts and feedback of real-world experiences;

• Extend important messages, such as risk information, to diverse healthcare stakeholders, including healthcare practitioners;

• Improve relationships with various stakeholders, including doctors (for instance by providing immediate treatment news), patients (i.e. empowering them by ensuring their voices are heard and receiving feedback) and the public at large;

• Access real-world evidence of medicines. This can be applicable in a huge range of areas, including vaccines, global health initiatives, new therapies, and more;

• Share ideas and partner on research and innovation – this is especially important as we are seeing a greater move towards collaborative efforts in research.

The advantages of social media engagement for pharma are clear. Admittedly, challenges remain to making digital activity a success. One key challenge for pharmaceutical companies engaging in social media lies in compliance: pharma companies need to satisfy different ethical, legal and regulatory requirements. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) recently released a draft social media guidance in order to offer industry some substantial direction on its use of digital media while the EMA hasn’t issued such guidelines yet. Human resources are also often seen as a barrier. It’s true that building a strong presence through social media can be quite time consuming, with the need for the information to be up to date, accurate and crystal clear. More and more, we are seeing the recognised need for dedicated digital media experts in big pharma companies.

“…we are seeing the recognised need for dedicated digital media experts in big pharma companies.”

Despite hurdles like these, the pros of greater social media activity far outweigh the cons. In a time when pharma is expanding its commitment to greater transparency and openness, social media is an ideal platform to further this aim. Now is not the time to shrink back but to push forward and make use of the new tools technology has to offer us. Pharma needs to not only contribute to conversations but also lead them. We need to explore new and more creative ways of engaging the public. That means actively putting information out and seeking input from all stakeholders in the healthcare field – including patients and the general public, who may have been underrepresented in the past. Social media allows us to lose the middlemen, and get direct opinions from these individuals on neutral platforms where all stakeholders can feel comfortable. This opportunity should not be missed.



About the author:

Camille De Rede holds a strong Communication background including several years of experience at the European Commission working for DG CONNECT. She is currently a Communications Manager at EFPIA, the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations. Camille deals with Project & Information Management, and oversees EFPIA’s social media strategy, aiming to place the EU Pharma Association as a conversation leader on various online platforms. Connect with Camille

Nicholas Elles is Deputy Communications Director at EFPIA and had previously worked in communications for consultancies and NGOs. He has brought his communications experience to EFPIA to create a creative, efficient and digital oriented team.

Alison Kilian is a former journalist turned full-time comms professional. She currently handles media relations and communications at EFPIA. Connect with Alison

Closing thought: When will pharma start leading social media conversations?