Social media listening gets the pharma industry talking

In the final part of this three article series exploring how pharma can manage online adverse event reporting, Paul Tunnah concludes his discussion with Siva Nadarajah, from IMS Health, to see how such activities might positively change the pharma industry.

(Continued from “Online adverse events: finding pharma’s needle in the electronic haystack“)

In the first two articles of this series, we explored the emerging regulatory landscape around tracking online adverse event reports, and Siva Nadarajah outlined how technology can play a role in providing efficient solutions to enable pharma’s digital activities.

But is online adverse event monitoring purely about mediating the risk associated with traditional commercial activities, or could it have a more significant impact on pharma?

“Other healthcare and regulatory bodies are quickly moving into such forward-looking activities”


Nadarajah sees the potential here, but is philosophical about where the industry is right now and the time it will take to steer a course into less reactive work. “Pharma is mainly using this technology as a compliance necessity around product or disease promotional campaigns or market research activities”, he explains, before adding “I have not seen a lot of companies proactively looking for adverse events in social media, as an early warning of problems, because they are not sure about the guidelines”.

However, beyond the walls of corporate pharma, other healthcare and regulatory bodies are quickly moving into such forward-looking activities, including the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), which included ‘leveraging emerging technologies for pharmacovigilance’ as part of its recently announced 9th call for proposals.1

Within pharma, the benefits of broader social media activities, including broader listening to customers, in relation to specific products are being embraced most by those companies with a strong over-the-counter (OTC) presence, Nadarajah observes. One large OTC company invested considerably in a Facebook page and saw “10% uptake in sales after they launched their campaign – it was a case study on the last Facebook conference, on how a regulated brand used the channel”.

As he points out, such OTC brands are regulated very much like prescription drugs, with stringent requirements around reporting side effects and off-label usage, but the companies see the benefits of being closer to their customers here as outweighing the risks from engaging.

“It is about customer service and the relationship between the pharma company and patient is changing”


Listening leads to talking

The old adage of having ‘two ears and one mouth’ certainly applies to the pharma industry right now with regards to social media. Most companies are, at least, monitoring some online dialogue relevant to their brands even where they are not proactively engaging, Nadarajah observes. But he also sees this inevitably leading to more dialogue, which could dramatically change pharma’s relationships with patients and providers for the better.

“With the OTC example on Facebook, their call centre volume has significantly dropped, because patients are using Facebook to ask questions or report adverse events. It is about customer service and the relationship between the pharma company and patient is changing”, Nadarajah explains.

Looking further ahead, he believes that such activities could even help the pharma industry refine the positioning for its products, something other industries, such as FMCG, have wholeheartedly embraced in using social media for customer feedback. “This could open up the whole business model, as pharma companies realise they can find out much earlier about the real-world efficacy of a drug, or adherence issues in how it is being used by patients, in addition to much earlier of potential incidents related to the drug”, Nadarajah says. The pathway from listening, will lead to more engagement and adaptation of pharma’s research and commercial activities (figure 1).

Figure 1: There are benefits to pharma in moving beyond listening for adverse events and into deeper engagement with customers around these issues, leading to adaptation.

Certainly, the offline activities of the pharma industry have shifted to reflect a more patient-centric approach of recognising the value of input, both at the research and commercial stage, in delivering products that work, so the same benefits could be amplified by taking these discussions online.

The risks for pharma of standing back

The other, perhaps more cautionary, aspect of this is the fact that key stakeholders for the pharma industry, such as the regulators and payers, are most definitely starting to use monitoring social media for their own research. They see that online discussion can be a great resource for not only monitoring side effects of drugs, but also for real, on the ground dialogue around their efficacy and quality plus, critically, the real-world outcomes that are defining market access for all pharmaceutical products.

As Nadarajah elaborates, “the regulators are trying to find out about adverse events popping up from social media, which either the pharma company knows about or is ignoring”. Even if the pharma company (genuinely) pleads ignorance, the downstream impact could be significant. One could imagine, he goes on to say, a situation where further investigation is triggered.

“The regulator could act on an online signal to say ‘let’s go and look at all your market research programmes that you have done’ and potentially identify market research vendors who did surveys showing a new side effect that was not reported.”

From a commercial perspective, it certainly makes sense for pharma to stay at least in line with the regulators and payers, if not one step ahead. Investors do not like unpleasant surprises!

“From a commercial perspective, it certainly makes sense for pharma to stay at least in line with the regulators and payers, if not one step ahead”


In concluding our discussion, Nadarajah is keen to reinforce that it is easy to see the digital world, particularly with regards to social media, as a separate realm. However, the benefits and risks outlined above apply to all kinds of engagement between the pharma industry and its customers, as does the technology.

Adverse event monitoring is not just about social media; the technology can be applied to any unstructured data that pharma companies are using – offline or online”, he explains.

So the technology behind online adverse event monitoring is not just about mitigating the risk of digital activities. It is about changing the way the pharma industry interacts with its customers in the much broader space.

The risks have been clearly documented by many and experienced by an unfortunate few, but the benefits are just starting to be realised.


1. 9th Call 2013 (for proposals), Innovative Medicines Initiative, July 2013. 



About the interviewee:

Siva Nadarajah is Director, Social Media Offerings at IMS Health and joined the organisation through the acquisition of Semantelli, which he co-founded and grew to be an industry recognized leader in social analytics for pharma. Currently he is director of social media offerings at IMS Health.

Prior to founding Semantelli, Siva was responsible for global CRM and compliance solutions with Cegedim. Siva is a voting member of the Wikimedia Foundation and has spoken worldwide about adverse events management in social media and the impact of Wikipedia in healthcare. He was recognized for uncovering two major security holes in Microsoft Hotmail in the early days of the Internet, which forever changed the security design of internet based email systems.

For more information about IMS Health’s Social Media Offerings please visit:

How will social media listening impact pharma activities?