Prior to the 9th PM Society Digital Awards at The Brewery venue, the PM Society hosted a two-hour workshop entitled “Pharma and social media: business, humanity and compliance collide”. Using the OpenMeet app, this was set to be an engaging and revealing session for an audience comprising 61% agency, 24% pharma and 15% digital specialist.

The workshop boasted expert speakers, Dr Nick Broughton (Compliance Partner, Makara Health), Alex Butler (Co-founder Foundry3), Dr Felix Jackson (Founder and Medical Director medDigital) and Dr Mark Toms (Chief Scientific Officer, Novartis UK).


The social media conundrum

Opening the event, Dr Nick Broughton started with his “whinge-athon”; the things Pharma doesn’t do, or doesn’t do well, when it comes to social media. Pharma is stuck between a vague opportunity and an immense fear of what could go wrong, often electing to do nothing rather than take the perceived risk. “Pharma is a contradiction to social media itself”, with social media representing freedom of speech and pharma being boxed in by its strict regulatory environment.

Nick is an independent pharmaceutical physician providing Code signatory to companies in the industry, but his passion lies in providing education in ethics and compliance to support business decision-making. When it comes to social media, Nick argued that what pharma often fails to understand is that its audience is individual people with different levels of understanding and needs. So how should we treat them? We have to be transparent and respect their intelligence. While yes, it can seem safer to do nothing, there is no reason not to communicate with the public about medicines and their health. Think about the problem and seek the answer using both ethics (what’s right and wrong) and compliance (what’s possible within the constraints).

Finally, Nick left us with an undeniable point. Compliance challenges are much greater in clinical trials than social media. If pharma can successfully tackle the complexity of clinical trials, it can overcome the compliance barriers of using social media. Your team or client may have a lack of belief in social media in terms of its business value, but if you can prove the value, the resources will come.


The business value of social media

Alex Butler was next and outlined “15 reasons to believe in social media for pharma”. There was a surprising 26% of the audience who voted for “Maybe” or “No” when asked the question “Should social media be a significant strategic focus for pharmaceutical companies?”.

As a social media pioneer for the industry, Alex took us on a journey back to the birth of social media. We all agree a lot has changed since then – access to information and the access we have to each other. What has evolved more recently in the sphere of health tech and social media is the ability to have access to oneself. We can track all manner of health essentials using just a smart phone and a patch for example, whereas ten years ago this would have cost hundreds of thousands of pounds. Existing and emerging technologies such as AI and machine learning are also beginning to transform the options available for accessing healthcare.

Of the ‘15 reasons to believe in social media’ Alex presented, the most compelling included:

  1. Patient communities – almost entirely positive and hugely powerful. These groups can be very beneficial to work with and often great, passionate, people.
  2. Patient insight – social media has vastly improved our understanding of patients, and that’s patients as individuals not just the mass.
  3. Patient advocates – the existence of expert advocates has blossomed thanks to social media. They fight for the appropriate treatment and rights of patients. 
  4. Supporting RWE – Real-world evidence directly from social media has started to help change and replace clinical markers, with real-world outcomes for patients, thanks to the richer data it provides.

These reasons feed in to a model closer to that of ‘patient centricity’ that pharma seeks to achieve, with social media popularising and accelerating many of the model’s concepts and applications. Looking forward, Alex hopes that social media will continue to revolutionise clinical trial understanding and recruitment, the ability to better predict disease outbreaks, and the communication and sharing of clinical literature.


Paving the way

These hopes provided the perfect segue to Dr Felix Jackson’s talk. He presented a world where global online HCP communities thrive, medical congresses and medical education are redefined, and the power of patient influencers is harnessed to improve lives of patients.

Felix outlined a number of successful examples of how social media has already been used in pharma to provide business value and patient benefit. A fantastic level of patient engagement is carried out by platforms Patients like me and Health unlocked to connect patients and recruit them into clinical trials. Social media patient influencers like Marie-Ennis O’Connor have changed the way people consider her condition and enabled more people to join in the conversation. This inclusive attitude to health has to be one of social media’s proudest offerings.

In the world of medical conferences, we are seeing a paradigm shift towards a faster-paced, more patient-focussed approach. An inspirational example is the Stanford medicine X conference that brings leaders in academic medicine closer to patients and their families than ever before. This international conversation enabled by such conferences is the future, Felix argued, and must be part of pharma strategy both today and going forward.

Felix’s own venture medCrowd is an instant messaging service that allows HCPs, caregivers and patients to communicate easily while protecting confidential information. This aids difficult diagnoses, new therapy areas and business decisions that need to be made quickly so that healthcare providers can react to newly released data. At an individual level, influential physicians on social media like Kevin Pho, M.D. can fundamentally change the provision of healthcare and these people should be invited to engage with pharma at ad boards and congresses.

Felix went on to list further best practice examples. Apps like MyHeart Counts are changing the way clinical trials work by getting people to download a simple app that will gather information and educate the user on their own health. Wearables continue to become more and more sophisticated and pharma must be part of these advancements to allow people to use their devices alongside medicines, so they can receive the best possible care.

In exploring successful social media campaigns, such as ViiV Heathcare’s Fighting HIV together campaign and Novartis’ askforclear psoriasis campaign, Dr Felix left us with this: “people expect legitimate businesses and corporations to have social media”. If pharma wants to prove its longevity, it must keep up with digital, which means not neglecting the great potential of social media.


Making things happen

Our final speaker was Dr Mark Toms. From the pharma perspective, Mark took an ‘objection handling’ approach to the matter, shedding light on why there is nervousness amongst signatories who are required to make things happen.

Mark started by identifying the elephant in the room. There are rules to be followed. This creates a large practical barrier for some, but the restrictions of compliance should not put you off engaging with social media – “It’s not about what we can’t do, it’s about what we can do.” The early take home message was that rules and restrictions can be followed without compromising the quality of your relationship with social media. It’s all about mindset and the way in which companies can use forward planning to navigate compliance.

Before discussing practical examples and ideas, a question was posed to the audience – “What do we fear in social media?”. Unsurprisingly, the top three answers were as follows:

  1. A nightmare to approve
  2. The risk of negative comments
  3. Pharmacovigilance requirements

Mark discussed that while worries and fears such as these exist, they are often unfounded; the principles and rules are the same for other types of media such as print or digital copy and therefore, social media is not something to shy away from.

Mark went on to explain how talking to the public via social media is a commonly missed opportunity by pharma; how else, he argued, can we understand the needs and cares of patients as effectively? The #FOMA (Fear of Migraine Attack) hashtag created by Novartis invited people to discuss their needs online and importantly for Novartis, allowed them unprecedented insight into the lives of patients in real time.

Addressing the issue of pharmacovigilance burden, adverse event (AE) reporting through social media is essentially no different to other forms of AE reporting. People seem to fear the potential volume involved with social media, but Mark argued that this can be overcome with effective planning. If a company were to launch a new social media campaign, the resources needed to deal with AE reporting and monitoring should be factored in beforehand, leaving no room to be unequipped later down the line.

Problems with approval was the top ‘fear’ raised by audience members – “Approval systems like Zinc aren’t slow, the ways we use them are” was Mark’s response. Social media poses a challenge in that its content is dynamic, it can be hard to predict where conversations will go, and this makes approval a problem. Mark offered some practical solutions:

- Certifying tweets and replies can be done quickly, it may be useful to have people ‘on call’ signing them off and budget beforehand.
- It may also be possible to pre-approve items by anticipating questions you might be asked over social media.

Next, Mark tackled the common fear of ‘loss of control’. People may make negative comments about your company or product whether you are present or not. Therefore, why would you not want to be a part of this conversation on social media? He shared the recent example of Sanofi’s reply to a racist tweet made by the American actress Roseanne Barr who later blamed her acts on the Sanofi product Ambien. Their rapid reply:

It serves as an important reminder that social media can be used to shape the conversation online and be a useful tool in maintaining how a company may be perceived by the public.

To conclude, Mark reiterated that pharma needs to engage to better understand their patients. To do this pharma needs to be transparent and ask for support. “If the code doesn’t provide the answers, then phone up the PMCPA or the ABPI so they know what isn’t clear!”

To close the event, we returned to the theme of ethics. “We should allow people to think about what the right thing to do is”, Mark said. “Morally, pharma should be doing something”. You can make a strong business case for using social channels using ethics and compliance at the heart. Some rules won’t go away, so accept that and work out the time, the resource and plans you need to put in place.


Author: Radical Departures
Date published: 10th October 2018