Social Media: Pharma Industry Considers Patient Engagement a Must

By Barbara Ficarra, RN, BSN, MPA

The Pharmaceutical industry feels patient engagement is a priority, but lacks presence in the social media world.  There’s a better way for Pharma to get their message heard, and it requires going beyond the medications and stepping outside the silo.

I’m not in Pharma, and I’m not a marketer, but I find it incredibly frustrating that Pharma lags behind in the social media world.  I had the opportunity to listen and to speak with Pharma industry thought leaders at the recent ePharma Summit in NYC.

The continual overall message throughout the summit was the magnitude of patient engagement.  The summit went beyond the “pill” and advertising and focused on the critical role of patients, and the impact of social media; however Pharma (for the most part) is behind the curve when it comes to social media.

How Digital is Transforming the Pharmaceutical Marketing Model”  an informative session presented by one of the Keynote speakers, Charlotte McKines, Global Vice President, Marketing Communications and Channel Strategies, Merck & Co.

“Digital is not just a channel; it really is a different way of doing our business and it really impacts everything from our strategies to our executions,” said McKines during her onstage presentation.  “So why is digital important?” she asked.   “We all declared, all of us in this room that we want to go beyond the pill, as we bring products to market, we want to focus on health care solutions that really impact patient outcomes and again move beyond the pill and we can’t do that in isolation.”  “We need to have a coordinated approach with payers, with customers, with consumers, with hospitals, with government, and digital is really the connecting point.  It’s the core enabler that allows us to connect with all of our stakeholders.”

So health care players in this marketplace are increasingly connected through digital,” she explained.

“Customers are increasingly looking for information using digital to get information so you see 86% of most of our customers, physicians use the web to gather information, but more importantly they use the non-pharmaceutical sites to get information about our products. They really don’t have a lot of trust and value right now in pharmaceutical sites.  So we really struggle in life sciences to really become a primary trusted source.  We have got to get there because finding the right place and being in the right destination for our customers really does give us the competitive advantage,” she explained.

“So whoever gets there first is really going to have a very strong competitive advantage,” she said adamantly.

McKines further explains that it’s important to connect with customers that are already there.

What are the keys to master this transformation? McKines says there are three ways to master this transformation:

  1. Adjust the organizations mindset—align to change customer needs, improve sales force effectiveness, and abandon traditional approach.  Virtual is key, use Podcasts, Webcasts.  Use sales as only one channel.  Leverage all the different channels, and customize approach based on the needs of customers. Customers are getting younger, so we need to engage our generational align.  Spread among the channels and go where the customers are.
  2. Embrace and leverage new technologies – less push and more pull.  Develop right content at the right time and the right place so customers can pull the information when they are ready to do that.  Match the non-Pharma experience, especially for the Gen Y customers.  Personalize content and use analytics and maintain data, and maximize results.  Step outside Pharma and look at how other industries are engaging customers like Best Buy, eBay, PayPal and American Express.
  3. Build new, better and stronger business models, given the backdrop of digital.

Social media brings collaboration.  Pharma has the opportunity to steer the conversation the best that they can.  Listen to customers to gain insights, and respond quickly and appropriately.  Increase customer engagement through social media.

Sage advice and sounds simple, so why is Pharma ignoring it?

In talking with some of the attendees, the universal simple answer is that Pharma is paralyzed by the lack of regulatory FDA guidelines.

Pure and simple, that seems to be the reason.

But, should it be?

The Pharma industry is smart and they understand the value of social media, but they want FDA guidance.

While the FDA guidelines remain in limbo, and not ready for implementation, (the FDA teased the industry with a draft– PDF), Responding to Unsolicited Requests for Off-Label Information About Prescription Drugs and Medical Devices. The Digital Health Coalition (DHC),  a nonprofit organization was created to serve as the collective public voice and national public forum for the discussion of the current and future issues relevant to digital and electronic marketing of healthcare products and services, developed their own guidelines for best practices Take a look at the sevenGuiding Principles and Best Practices for Companies and Users.”

The DHC Social Guiding Principal Summit was led by Mark Bard and Joe Farris.  “The world is changing and we need to put some guardrails in place,” said Bard, founder of DHC, during the presentation.

In a rapid-fire session, “Utilize Social Media as a Part of a Fully Integrated Campaign,” presented by Spilios Asimakopoulos, Director of Marketing Technology COE, Janssen pharmaceuticals and Clement Chan, Director, Digital Marketing, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, they talked about Janssen’s Facebook presence, despite the absence of regulatory guidelines from the FDA.  Janssen engages online with patients in the psoriasis community and has 7,254 fans on Facebook.

However, I asked if there was a Twitter presence, and Chan replied that there’s no activity on Twitter because “there’s not enough room to talk to patients.”

Here is where I beg to differ.  Twitter is a huge social media platform and those not engaging in it, are doing a disservice.

I don’t believe anyone at the summit would argue that patient engagement isn’t critical, content is king, transparency is a must, listening is required, authenticity is a given and responding in real-time is necessary.

While Janssen champions Facebook, Janssen is active with its Living Well with Psoriasis community and they have 24 hour monitoring on Facebook.  Another Pharma company, Shire, uses Facebook specifically as a brand platform where consumer engagement doesn’t’ exist because they don’t allow comments.

During the session I questioned Joanne Curley, Director Regulatory Affairs, Advertising and Promotion, Shire, as to why Shire is using Facebook if they don’t allow for comments.  Facebook is a social media platform and if social media is truly about patient engagement and a two-way conversation, how is it that Shire doesn’t allow comments or interaction? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of social media?

Listening, learning, engagement, two-way conversation, transparency, authentic sharing, is what social media is all about.

Thoughts from Peter Pitts, President, Center for Medicine in the Public Interest

  • If you wouldn’t say it offline, don’t say it online
  • Use your best judgment, a lot of people in Pharma find it frightening to use their own judgment, he said.
  • Understand what you’re doing and bottom line, Pharma is split and not involved.

Bonin Bough, Senior Director of Digital and Social Media, PepsiCo, said to choose where you want to listen and respond to the conversation.  Bough explained that there’s not too much engagement going on when Gatorade chatter revolves around hangovers, but he said that conversations from moms and coaches are interesting to them and that’s where they spend their time and where the real-time two-way conversations occur.


I feel that companies that aren’t engaging with patients and consumers are missing out on significant dialogue that can promote and result in trust and harness the power of people for positive word-of-mouth marketing.

Social media is about collaboration, connection, communication and community.

Without a doubt, patient engagement is critical and social media cannot be ignored.  Pharma is paralyzed by fear and hesitant to dive into social media arena without FDA guidelines.

It’s time for Pharma to stop holding its breath waiting for FDA guidelines and step outside the silo and engage strongly with others.  Go where consumers are, listen and respond authentically.

One of the worst things any company can say is, “We’ve never done it that way before.”  How can a company move forward without stepping outside the box or like Guy Kawasaki likes to say, “Jump the curve?

Gather the smartest minds in social media, utilize the extraordinary resources that are available (list below) and just make it happen.

Don’t be afraid of trying something new.  If it fails, at least you tried and you offer an apology to your customers, consumers, patients, people, and individuals (whatever term you use) and more than likely they will forgive you and you can move forward.  At least you tried and along the way probably have gained consumer trust.

What people won’t forgive you for is trying to cover things up and like McKines said, customers really don’t have a lot of trust and value right now in pharmaceutical sites.”

Maybe it’s time the C-Suite looks beyond the typical and moves the status quo to exciting new heights.

Some Pharma companies that have jumped the curve and engage in social media

Resources for Social Media

Your turn

We would love for you to share your insightful thoughts and comments whether you are a consumer or a health care professional.  Consumers, what do you think about Pharma having a social media presence?  If you’re a Pharma company and you have a social media presence, please share that with us.

As always, thank you for your valuable time.

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    Cool tips there Barbara. Patients are always looking for information online on their health issues and if doctors don’t take advantage they are bound to loose a lot. By just providing information to patients doctors can increase the number of customers they receive.

    Erick Kinuthia
    Team Mdwebpro

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    At LiquidGrids, we truly believe that engagement with the consumer is key.  The problem has been how to make sense  out of the vast amount of “big data” and turn it into strategically useful Social Healthcare Intelligence.  The second problem has been the ability to interact with the healthcare consumer.  The consumes is looking for information on THEIR issue or question. Interacting in mass is a very non personalized message.  Interacting in a one on one basis is impractical.  The goal is to be able too interact in a “one to many” fashion, after you have identified the “many” with a common issue.  Our passion at LiquidGrids is to provide that capability.
    Please consider adding us to your list.
    Jack J Florio, LiquidGrids

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    Comment on behalf of John Jason at (Posted by Barbara Ficarra with permission from John Jason.)

    I agree there are a lot of good pointers and agree that pharma must seeks ways to engage. I would also add whether or not they include social media for their company or products their consumers (patients and providers) are spreading the word about them – good or bad. This is why it is important for them to, at the very least, utilize social media monitoring and listening. It will help them stay on top of adverse events, off-label use, positive and negative sentiments, what’s going on in communities, competition and more. I too would like you to consider adding us as a resource –

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