Pharma social media scan: the digital KOL – and all the other things I always wanted to say but never dared to!

Emma D’Arcy

Complete Digital

By the time you read this (a phrase I’ve always wanted to utter – alongside “stop the press” and “follow that car”) I’ll be deep into a debate about new types of KOLs and the approaches that pharma might take to strategically engage with them. That’s because I’m chairing a summit on the subject in Berlin. Accordingly, this has meant I have spent the best part of April reviewing physician channels and the relationships they permit with pharma – a subject close to my heart and one for which I’ve gone head-to-head with some of the world’s most anti-KOL KOLs (the type of people who use phrases like “disease mongering”).

Through various digital media these anti-relationship puritans and their enraged-about-engagement entourages have panned me – calling me naive (at best) and deluded (at worst). My crime – I dared to venture a future of participatory medicine where digital channels – especially social media – would both pave the way for and drive an increasingly egalitarian healthcare environment with entitled and empowered patients and more (not fewer) productive, equal alignments between physicians and industry.


“For the buzz about participatory medicine is loud and we are seeing the rise of several new types of KOL…”

And now I can use another satisfying phase – I told you so! For the buzz about participatory medicine is loud and we are seeing the rise of several new types of KOL – the DIY KOL who uses digital means to make himself visible, the sKOL who uses social media tools to communicate better with his peers, patients and pharma and the RW-KOL – the ‘real world’ KOL who might not be a physician or scientist at all but a highly-informed and motivated member of the great unwashed.

I’m going to make another bold statement and welcome the resulting crossfire … the ultimate KOL in healthcare is surely the digital one. Omnipotent, influential, respected for bringing about change for the better – the three characteristics that define the traditional KOL. So, although I am aware that this column has sounded conceited so far, I urge you (as I will the conference attendees) to continue to ignore the Digital super-KOL at your peril.

 If I may dissect the characteristics further with some startling facts and figures courtesy of the Manhattan Research studies …


• More than 80% of EU physicians agree that the internet is essential to their practice


• &gt,70% EU physicians seek colleagues’ opinions through social networks

Respected for leading change:

• 76 million EU consumers are e-empowered patients who are twice as likely to request a prescription based on their online research

The era of participatory medicine isn’t approaching – it is here. And the pharmaceutical companies who have a strong relationship with the ‘digital KOL’ are the ones who are the most successful in this new age. Review for example the Janssen psoriasis 360 sites, the Pfizer Man MOT campaign, and the approach that Novo Nordisk takes to align patients, physician and pharma through its online activities. All of these examples / companies follow three basic relationship principles:


“… the ultimate KOL in healthcare is surely the digital one.”


1.  They know the digital landscape for their ‘product’

 2. They accept it is their responsibility to ensure public sources of information are up-to-date

 3. They are well-aware of the online conversations about their ‘product’ and the insights are shaping communication strategy and the direction of clinical research.

And so full-circle back to the suggestions made years ago and the reality of the digital opportunities – more relationships and with Real World Experts in a shift from physician-directed to personalized medicine where wrap-around digital services eclipse the ‘key messages’ of yesterday.

What does this mean for the future of the way that industry uses digital channels to interact with the medical community? Kay Wesley wrote a brilliant blog about this last week (and she is my boss so I have to alert you to a keen bias – but I fully-endorse her projections) in which she described physicians as ‘healthcare stockbrokers’ for the empowered patient – “reaching out to specialists and services in response to their patient’s requirements, using digital tools and multiple media…” Kay predicted that the physician will live in a digital landscape of information, education and peer support, and has everything she needs at her fingertips.

 The future’s so bright for engaging with the digital KOL – I’ve got to wear shades!

Something else I always wanted to say.

Emma is back with the next ‘Pharma social media scan’ at the beginning of June.

About the author:

Emma D’Arcy is a Senior Consult (Physician and Patient Channels) at Complete Digital. For more information please visit

Emma is chairing the KOL &amp, Stakeholder Engagement Europe 2011 in Germany.

What’s your view on the digital KOL?