Pharma Meets Social Media: Untapped Potential by Estia Ryan

The pharmaceutical industry isn’t traditionally thought of as embracing social media for change. A recent study however shows the huge potential for the market: 80% of social media users also look for health information online. 90% of 18-24 year-olds rely on social media in some form to educate themselves on health.

Social media however goes beyond Gen Z market capture. Nine out of ten adults in the US find it difficult to use physical information in health facilities. Leaflets and other resources aren’t engaging or informative in a more digital age. Dr. Sherri Matis-Mitchell, speaking at the Medicine 2.0 World Congress on Social Media and Mobile Apps, suggested that pharmaceutical companies could use social media ‘to provide product information and promotional materials’. They should also be using social media to ‘better understand patients’ needs and experiences, and to provide additional education, particularly to those with chronic illnesses. Online forums and groups can help companies gauge interest for R&D projects and pharmacovigilance.

Key online patient communities include PatientsLikeMe and 23andMe. PatientsLikeMe boasts 500,000 members and covers 2,500 medical conditions. It uses social media to help collect patient-reported outcome data, as well as assessing quality of life in the multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis communities. 23andMe is a DNA-testing site which lets users trace back their family roots to different continents, but also helps them understand which diseases they may be predisposed to. They then create social networks between customers – the Parkinson’s Disease Research Initiative for example has 5,000 participants and has uncovered two different genetic variants and confirmed 20 others relating to the disease.

Social media could also be used to reduce patient enrollment costs in clinical trials. Trials are admin heavy – 30% of time is spent on recruitment, and 40% of sites miss enrollment targets. Social media could help cut this time by creating a targeted demographics search.

How are established players already engaging with social media? GSK launched a campaign on LinkedIn to celebrate International Women’s Day, sharing the contents on Facebook and other outlets. GSK reported 50% increased online engagement following the campaign. Novartis launched a social network for heart failure patients in the US, to share personal stories and create a support network.

Of course, complying with data regulation laws online is tricky, especially in the Pharma space. GDPR in the EU and HIPAA in the US (Health insurance Portability and Accountability Act) make it difficult for companies to freely share health data to improve services. However this is changing, with the rise of anonymous data websites and self-owned data apps like Digi.Me. Patients can now own their own data, as collected on social media and provided by health professionals, and sell it on to Pharma companies independently.

Going forward, Pharma can and should embrace social media like other sectors. There has been little collaboration with ‘online influencers’ or community creation on Instagram using unique hashtags. Big Pharma should be engaging with the Gen Z market but also improving existing healthcare systems for all age groups. Market incumbents and established players should position themselves accordingly, to harness currently untapped potential.

Estia Ryan

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