People living with diabetes have created a vibrant online community. Big drug companies are certainly taking notice — and some advocacy groups feel that the Food and Drug Administration should as well.
Kerri Sparling (@sixuntilme) chronicles her own journey with the disease on a blog she started in 2005. Other people in the DOC — that's the diabetes online community — share on YouTube. There are videos with advice on everything from removing an insulin pump to telling your date you have diabetes. There are also reviews of products to treat diabetes.
A few years ago, drug companies started paying attention to these video testimonials and to bloggers talking about their products. The companies even created their own social media sites.
"Our primary platform is our blog Discuss Diabetes," explains Dennis Urbaniak, the head of diabetes at drug giant Sanofi US. They also have a Twitter account, a Facebook page, and a diabetes dictionary, and they're looking into Pinterest and Instagram. "Getting involved in social media is a critical component of serving the diabetes community," says Urbaniak.
And it's not just serving the community; it's serving companies' bottom lines. Treating diabetes is extremely profitable. Every year Americans spend more than $100 billion on diabetes care. So, in addition to tweeting about new products, pharmaceuticals are sponsoring bloggers like Sparling.
"If we're talking about what we want from our devices, it is in their best interest to be hearing that and making the changes we're requesting so they can improve their sales," Sparling says.
Sparling has a disclosure on her website stating she receives free products from two drug companies, and that one pays her to speak at events and contribute at her site. But critics say that's not enough.
"People do not read disclosures. The FDA and [Federal Trade Commission] need to create a whole new system for disclosing when a blogger or group gets paid by pharmaceutical companies," says Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy. He says pharmaceutical companies are using social media to promote their gadgets and drugs in a deceptive way.