The changing social media landscape in healthcare

Michelle Kelly

EPG Health Media

I recently came back from ExL Pharma’s Digital Pharma Europe meeting and ‘unconference’ in Berlin. The whole meeting was focused on social media and its role in health communications and marketing. Naturally, it was tweet-tastic (#digpharm)!

It was there that we published our market research report Social Media and Healthcare. The report shows how doctors, patients/consumers and pharma engage (and seek to engage) with each other. Importantly, this helps us understand the potential for future change in terms of the use of social media in relation to health.

Here, I wanted to share some highlights and key takeaways from the report.


In a report by Econsultancy and Exact Budget (Marketing Budgets 2010)1, social media was cited as the marketing activity companies are most likely to increase their spend on in 2010, with 65% reporting an increase. The benefits for those companies already using social media in their marketing mix are perceived as more transparency, more effective budget utilisation and greater return on investment.

While pharma is tentatively engaging with patient/consumer and healthcare provider (HCP) communities via social media, this engagement has so far been limited, especially outside of the US, where the rules of direct-to-consumer (DTC) marketing in healthcare are restrictive2.

It seems that most pharma companies appear to be in favour of new laws that would allow easier communication with consumers/patients on the web3. However, it is less clear whether these views are shared by consumers/patients and by HCPs.

“It seems that most pharma companies appear to be in favour of new laws that would allow easier communication with consumers/patients on the web.”

Forrester Research recently pointed to HCP social networks as one of the biggest opportunities for pharma marketers to generate new strategies, engage and learn. However, social networks for HCPs are largely US dominated currently – and therefore most research into HCP use of social media has been US focused and involving HCPs already part of social networks (Sermo etc), so results are arguably skewed.

Study objectives

Our study looked to redress this ‘skew’ by researching across HCPs, pharmaceutical professionals and consumers/patients within the ‘top-5’ EU countries. The key objectives of the research, conducted between February and March 2010, were to understand:

• The extent to which the respondent groups interact with each other via social media, why and what for.

• Whether more HCPs and patients would use social media for health if it was regulated.

• What the potential is for future change in terms of the use of social media in relation to health.

However, we hope the study results prove particularly useful for pharma as it tackles social media as a new channel by:

• Allowing marketers to better understand the audience, its preferences and behaviour.

• Providing a snap shot of both current and future opportunities in the digital social space.

• Aiding consideration of whether there are sufficient patients/consumers and HCPs interested in using social media to justify significant investment at this time.

• Identifying those areas within social media where marketing spend is best placed and most appropriate.

Key findings

The results of the study indicate that all three target groups (HCP, patient/consumer and pharma) seek further engagement in the social space for health and would increase their involvement given clarity of regulation and governance of fact.

An average of 38% of respondents from the three target groups reported they were active in the social space regarding health topic discussion, yet on average 83% of the same respondents felt they would be ‘more likely’ to participate in this environment with proper guidelines and regulation. This clear ‘yes’ from respondents should be taken by pharma as an indicator of the social networks potential for the industry.

Figure 1

Survey result: Would you be more likely to use social media for health if there were clear, established regulations &amp, guidelines on how patient, doctors and healthcare companies can interact using them?

The study (of EU top 5) highlights the need for digital publishers and marketers alike to consider geographic and language considerations. It demonstrates a shortfall of opportunity for French and German speaking HCPs versus significant demand from those audiences.

HCPs want to talk to other HCPs and with patients/consumers. Likewise, patients/consumers would like to talk with each other and with HCPs. Both groups seek to engage on a range of topics from personal experiences of illness and treatment, through to seeking education and guidance.

However, the pharma group, whilst it has the desire to engage with patients and doctors in the social networking environment – driven by the marketing and commercial benefits – may find its promotional message lost in digital space. This is because a significant majority of patients (70%) and healthcare professionals (60%) do not wish to communicate with pharma via (currently unregulated) social networks.

Figure 2

Survey result: Who do you want to be able to communicate with using social media for health related discussion?

Obviously, these are just some highlights from the full report, which can be accessed for free through the link at the bottom of this piece.


Whilst the study throws up a number of interesting results, there are some key conclusions that I think can be drawn from it.

In targeting spend on social networking, pharma must accept that the brand or treatment story will be told by patients/consumers and HCPs, not by pharma’s marketing message. To quote from a recent report by DatAnalytics entitled ‘Pharma and the Social Media’, “Customers can only be found where they are. Today you can only offer them what they’re selectively looking for. Consumers make the market rules! They’re becoming the key opinion leaders (KOL).”

“…pharma must also consider the power of the information it places, and its role in supporting the story told by HCPs and patients/consumers.”

However, pharma must also consider the power of the information it places, and its role in supporting the story told by HCPs and patients/consumers. Both groups seek to benefit themselves and gain knowledge in preference to sharing their own experiences. This indicates a demand for education, information and facts in the digital space – an opportunity pharma must not ignore, for it is only pharma that can facilitate access to such information in a reliable, credible format.

So the study also highlights the need for industry to recognise the potential of its role in governance or correction of information. It must actively seek to make freely available easy-to-understand information regarding products for both patients/consumers and healthcare professionals alike. In doing this and – where possible – seeking to correct misinformation, the industry can build trust amongst its markets and drive forward dialogue regarding its products.

One thing is for sure, social media and its use as part of the pharma/healthcare marketing mix looks set to dramatically increase.


1. Jeanne Hopkins (2010), “Chart of the Week: Marketing Budgets Shifting to Digital Tactics”. [Accessed March 2010]

2. Jonathan Richman (March 2010) “Pharma and Healthcare Social Media Wiki” – An extensive up-to-date- list of all Pharma related social media – including Facebook, YouTube, twitter etc. [Accessed March 2010]

3. US Food and Drug Administration. Enter “FDA-2009-N-0441-0001? into search field at [Accessed March 2010]

About the author:

Michelle Kelly is Division Head of Market Research at EPG Health Media (part of the IMR International Group), which provides a range of high quality, web-based medical products, communications and marketing solutions. EPG Health Media uses online content delivery and digital communication services to educate and engage audiences from family doctors and specialists to patients, including bespoke solutions based upon 10 years of health sector experience.

To download the full ‘Social Media and Healthcare’ report for free click here.

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