Social pharma faces: Atul Sharma

Paul Tunnah interviews Atul Sharma

International Marketing

The Indian pharmaceutical industry is the world’s second-largest by volume and is set to lead the Indian manufacturing sector. So we felt it only right that we turned our attention to India for our latest ‘social pharma faces’ interview.

Atul Sharma spoke with us on how pharma in this area remains apprehensive about jumping on to the social media bandwagon. Atul has fully embraced social media from its advent and questions the perception it has in India of not being taken seriously enough, suggesting it is seen as a non-work activity. What can we do to change this perception and will these emerging markets catch the same social media bug as the developed markets?

Click on the play button below to watch some select video of highlights with an edited text summary of the discussion below.

Interview summary

PT: Atul, thanks for joining me. You’ve always been an avid tweeter and you were one of the first people I followed on Twitter. How did you get into social media?

AS: I started my career in marketing and then went into sales, before moving into product management where I developed an interest in communication. When social media took off I found it exciting and started trialling it for various activities which I normally did through conventional media. So Twitter, as well as Facebook, was one of the channels I started using, and the best part of it was that there was two-way communication and already a set of experts from across the world using it to basically share ideas.

PT: What differences do you see between the use of social media in more developed and emerging markets like India?

AS: I have seen many people, companies and organisations like the FDA using social media quite regularly. Unfortunately a similar kind of thing has not been seen in India, because primarily communications regarding pharmaceuticals in India are restricted to doctors and pharmacists only.

“Innovative companies have obviously been involved in this in developed markets like the USA or Europe, but not in India.”

Innovative companies have obviously been involved in this in developed markets like the USA or Europe, but not in India. But they could use their marketing clout to create groups of doctors with particular specialties and use social media to communicate with them, e.g. through a medical education series. Right now this doesn’t exist, but there is good scope for it in India where the cost of communication is high for things like meetings with small groups of doctors given the geographic scale.

PT: You mentioned that within the more emerging markets there’s not much use of social media within pharma, so what do you think is the major block compare with the US or some of the European markets?

When it comes to medicine, or health for that matter, social media somehow has a perception in developing countries that it is not a serious media where people can seek advice, for things like understanding drug side effects or usage of a particular medicine. People have a block and consider social media only for things like communicating with friends or sharing photographs. Here, it will take a bit more time before the consumer starts using it as a serious media, but people are slowly getting more liberal in terms of their openness towards accepting communication from these new sources and have started using things like Google to search for their common medical problems.

I recently did an experiment with Facebook where I posted many medical studies of common interest, such as side effects observed globally for diabetes drugs (as acknowledged by the FDA) and studies around diet and heart attack risk. My observation was that most of this information did not get much attention, unless a friend of mine or someone close to them suffered from the particular disease. So the major drawback for me was that the right target population was very difficult to reach, which is reflective of current social media use here.

“…social media somehow has a perception in developing countries that it is not a serious media where people can seek advice…”

PT: How do you think social media should be used within healthcare?

AS: Social media channels like Facebook and Twitter have gained success because they are very convenient forms of communication, which could have a marvellous effect on the health of the nation if used to provide good healthcare advice. For example, five years ago (when social media was not prevalent) we launched a new diabetes product and we conducted a survey with diabetologists that showed they were frustrated with not having time to see all their patients during the day. Each patient would take around 45 minutes of the diabetologist’s time while they explained what to eat, what time to eat, what to avoid etc. So we made a short video explaining to patients how to deal with diabetes and distributed it to the doctors on a CD, which they found very helpful and would play in the waiting room for the patients. Social media is like an improved version of this approach, so it’s a matter of utilising it in a more effective way to build on what has been done in the past.

PT: Does social media have a role to play in the generic drug market, which is clearly important in India?

AS: In most developed countries, unlike the US and Europe, there is a perception that generics are a lesser version of the original branded drug. This communication gap can be addressed by social media, which could reduce the drug cost burden to the government. The reality is that there is a difference between small molecule generics and the original drug, but only due to small inactive impurities, but this message will become more important with biosimilars where the manufacturers need to prove and communicate bioequivalence for the medicine.

PT: How do you think the regulators will respond to social media use by pharma?

AS: There has been a lot of debate on Twitter about social media guidelines, including citing specific examples where they were needed, so the pressure is on the authorities to produce them. They already have a set of guidelines for print media, so why not have similar guidelines for social media?

“They already have a set of guidelines for print media, so why not have similar guidelines for social media?”

The thing here is making sure that detailed technical medical communication, such as details of drug efficacy, side effects or surgical procedure processes, are directed only toward medically qualified doctors – those who are equipped and trained to understand the communication. Nevertheless there are those who are talking about patient empowerment, which is another important aspect that needs to be addressed. So there is a real need for specific guidelines from the FDA, the European regulators and others stating how to communicate, what to communicate and when to communicate with different subsets of the healthcare community.

PT: What do you think pharma can learn from the emerging markets when it comes to social media use?

AS: There is a lot to learn from the Western markets where social media is being more effectively used. This has to be imitated by more companies in India in order to communicate effectively and make it an important channel as part of the communication strategy for a product or brand, or for things like pharmacovigilance reporting. It’s not only about engaging with doctors, but also patients in order to increase their participation in seeking healthcare information online and imparting useful knowledge. There has to now be a social aspect to everything, especially healthcare.

About the author:

Atul Sharma was the Senior Manager -EU, ROW &amp, Mexico (Generic Alliance Cluster) &amp, API (Japan,Turkey) at Alembic Ltd. From an early career in product management, he graduated to excelling in marketing and sales, within India, before moving onto business development and sales activities across global geographies .

Atul deals with wide and expanding horizons in business development, initiating from South Africa, Brazil, Australia, to brand building tie up with different working models apt to the market needs and hitting the right mantra of the market in SE Asia, Africa, Latin America and striking strategic alliances with suitable partners with tailor made deals in Mexico and Europe.

He has focussed on both chronic and acute care product marketing, with an appreciation of pharmaco-epidimeology applications in marketing in different kind of socio-economic scenarios and identifying the window of business opportunity within the narrow space of regulatory barriers.

Atul can be found on Twitter, where he tweets as @sharma6669.

Why isn’t social media taken more seriously in emerging markets?