Social media have opened a new channel of communication for pharma industry, making possible that direct communication could be their way to contact to their final clients, patients. Social media could help brands to consolidate and improve people's reliability on them but also they could injury their image, because of the power that users have on making all messages viral. It happened to a powerful pharma company, when, having been at the forefront of a corruption episode in China, their news spread like wildfire through social media and they lost millions of dollars in the stock market.
Pharma industry regulatory organisms have tried, recently, to set standards to regulate companies activity in social media. USA's Federal Drugs Administration (FDA) is the last one who has published guidelines, through the Office of Prescription Drug Promotion (OPDP). Particularly, these guidelines make recommendations in two fields:
- Presentation of risks and benefits of a prescription drug in social media, in channels with limitation of characters (Twitter, payment links in search engines as Google and Yahoo). FDA establishes (see guide) that pharma should include in their official accounts information about drug's risks and give to consumer the possibility to access to further information about these risks.
- Correction of mistaken information published by third parties about prescription drugs and medical devices (see guide). It allows companies to correct information about their products that they consider is mistaken, in pages like, for example, Wikipedia.
Mobile Health Global has talked to two experts in pharma digital marketing in the United States. John Mack, Pharma Guy (blog), and Richard Meyer (blog), who have given us their views about both guidelines published by FDA.
John Mack (@pharmaguy)
Pharma Industry had waited for more than five years for the publication of these use guidelines of social media by OPDP, after a public audience in 2009, where the stakeholders of this field gave their opinion. In my view, first guideline blocks pharma activities in social media, while second one opens a possibility. First one is a bit diffuse and it does not specify how much information about risks is necessary. This fact could limit companies' action, who won't risk to fail.
There are some aspects that have not been addressed, as information showed in Twitter through mobile devices -different from a computer- (for example, to watch images it is necessary to click them) and new Twitter functionalities, as Cards, which allow users to include more information (article about this subject).
Second guideline gives pharma industry what it was demanding, it allows the industry to correct mistaken Wikipedia's information. However, if companies do not work aligned with Wikipedia -for example, assigning an editor who interacts officially with this source-, efforts to correct or update information perhaps will be ignored or some months would be necessary for Wikipedia to make changes.
I think that, despite these suggestions, companies that have been proactive in social media will keep being proactive, while those who have been wary of being there, will continue with this attitude.
Richard Meyer (@richmeyer)
Pharma industry marketing is now in a crossing. To arrive to patients they need a digital strategy but, because of the financial pressures and the way how they are focused on in the ROI (Return of Investment), I do not think that big companies would take the risk of implementing a social media strategy in a channel that ROI has not proved.
The real power of social media for this industry is that this channel connects it with patients and improves public's reliability. Despite barriers that budgets and resources put up, it is important to be there.
In my opinion, guidelines proof that FDA do not understand how empowered patients make decisions about their health. No patient will take a decision only because of a content published in social media. On the other hand, each disease is a little market with singular characteristics. For example, multiple sclerosis is a really active market on the net, and their users are connected, but people with depression are not. Until marketing professionals in this industry achieve a bigger knowledge of social media and of their clients' requirements, they will let the train pass.
Spain and The United Kingdom, two contrary regulations
In Spain, the new code of practices in Farmaindustria is what makes suggestions about companies' activity in social media. Particularly, in the article 8 of this code, which talks about digital environment.
Carmen Casado (@CarmenCasadoS)
As Carmen Casado's (@CarmenCasado) view, who is a lawyer specialized ICT on health field, the new pharma industry code, entered into force last 1st January, could have developed better aspects about social media: "This reform would have been a great opportunity to clarify differences between general and sectorial regulations, particularly about the responsibility of contents and the obligation of the industry on tracking social media. This obligation exists both in media and own networks and in foreign ones, because the challenge is in controlling what we say about us but also what other people say about us and our products.
Spanish code establishes that pharma companies are responsible of the contents they spread through channels they direct or indirectly control or exclusive or mainly finance - but not of the contents about the company or their products that are issued by third parties in digital environment, as United Kingdom code specifies. Pharma industry code also encourages companies to create guidelines and behavior rules for company's workers who interact in digital environment.
A more confined activity by British regulatory organism
Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA), regulatory organism for pharma industry in the United Kingdom, published a guide about digital communications in 2011 (updated in 2014), where it confines the activity of the industry in social media. As Casado says, "In the United Kingdom they know that, because of the particularities that internet has and its strict regulatory framework in advertising and pharma security, it is necessary to specify the activity of this industry in social media. There are already resolutions about the use of Twitter". And she adds that "I think that in Spain it could have been regulated similarly to United Kingdom's model".
British guide stablishes that industry can provide information to public through social media. It also obligates companies to register adverse effects of their medications that they could receive from social media and to inform of them in their websites.