by Agatha Gilmore | February 01, 2012
It seemed innocent enough. It was June 2010. Excited about the launch of Savitex, a pharmaceutical product used to treat symptoms of multiple 
sclerosis, some public relations managers at Bayer U.K. took to the company’s Twitter account to mention its release. Then in March 2011, the same group used its @BayerUKIreland account to broadcast the U.K. launch of Levitra, used to treat erectile dysfunction, and linked to a press release about the product.

Little did the company know that the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority, the body responsible for administering the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry’s Code of Practice regulations, was focused on developing guidelines for the use of social media in the U.K. The Authority released a report that noted it is illegal to promote prescription medicines to the general public in the U.K. and sharply censured Bayer for its apparent slip-up. 

Yet Andrea Postles, public and media relations manager at Bayer U.K., highlighted the real issue when she stated to Pharmafocus: “The position on use of social media and digital communication in relation to prescription medicines remains far from clear.”

Says Bill Cooney, president and CEO of Evanston, IL-based Medpoint Digital Inc., a global provider of web-based solutions and communications for the biopharmaceutical industry: “It’s a great example of how you’ve got to be careful with social media in the pharmaceutical industry.” He adds that “Bayer was just doing something that normally would be considered fine. But in this industry, you have to pay very close attention to the quickly proliferating regulatory environment. If you’re planning a meeting, inviting people to a meeting, or in any way increasing the profile of a meeting using social media, you have to adhere to a lot of rules and avoid a lot of pitfalls. It is a bit of a minefield. I think it’s going to challenge the industry for some time.”

In addition to the regulatory difficulties demonstrated by the Bayer fiasco, issues involving patient confidentiality, drug testing, and physician and corporate accountability also complicate the use of social media for the medical and pharmaceutical industries. 

But the world is changing. People today expect Twitter feeds, Facebook posts, and LinkedIn connections wherever they are—including at industry events. As such, those pharma companies that can figure out how to incorporate social media into their modus operandi in an appropriate and helpful way will have a significant advantage.

Social Stumbling Blocks
Perhaps the most significant hurdle to the extensive adoption of social media in the medical and pharmaceutical industries is government regulation. 

First, there are myriad rules and restrictions concerning the marketing and promotion of all pharmaceutical products. These all fall under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) dedicated Office of Prescription Drug Promotion. In addition to helping the FDA ensure all drugs are safe and effective, this office monitors all advertisements and other marketing efforts to ensure they are truthful and balanced. This is where bringing social media in can get tricky for a pharmaceutical company. Any tweet, Facebook post, or other online comment has to comply with regulations. To further complicate matters, these regulations vary by country.

Perhaps more important, however, this kind of online communication also opens the door for consumers to comment directly—and publicly—on products, which has the potential to cause a regulatory firestorm. 

“Pharmaceutical companies have to worry about discussions that go outside of approved product labeling,” explains Cooney. “What’s worrisome is that during a social media exchange, a consumer could say something that could be considered an adverse-event report. That’s a report of somebody having an adverse effect from taking a pharmaceutical product. And the industry is absolutely required to know if an adverse event is reported; it’s something the sponsor of the exchange owns and controls. There’s a huge question mark around that.”

Of course, physicians themselves are also required to be increasingly transparent in their pharmaceutical relationships, and many are reluctant to participate in social media conversations for fear of inadvertently complicating sponsorships, exposing themselves to liability, or breaching patient confidentiality. 

“People generally aren’t tweeting in a meeting because of the sensitivity of the subject,” says Maria Kramer, a meetings manager for PlannerNet whose clients include two large pharmaceutical companies. “A lot of the doctors we invite don’t want to be seen as biased against a drug. Or a speaker doesn’t want to seem biased. People know they will be held accountable.”

Adds Moki Evans, owner of Polaris Meetings Group LLC, a meeting planning, marketing, and management service based in San Francisco: “As a pharma planner, I have to protect both my client and, indirectly, patients in the long run. Patient data is shared at the meeting itself; all this information is electronic. All it takes is a really good hacker to compromise it.”

Virtual Opportunities
Despite all the furor, social media is increasingly embedded in today’s society and is certainly on the radar of medical and pharmaceutical meeting professionals. For example, Kramer says most companies in the industry will advertise meetings and conferences on Facebook—but only the dry data and basic information that’s available to the public. 

Evans notes that LinkedIn has been a popular pre- and post-meeting tool, as attendees can look each other up and network prior to the event, and then stay in touch more easily afterward.

Kramer adds that many companies also have taken to doing online webcasts for new-product presentations to physicians, and have employed audience response systems to allow them 
to comment.

What to Do 
Deeper use of social media tools has yet to be seen. And this is where meeting planners in the medical/pharmaceutical industry really can take advantage of technology in a safe way, says Cooney.

“There are a lot of things meeting managers can do to surround their meetings with social media,” he says. “You’re going to start seeing more and more of this.”
One easy and secure way to allow attendees to communicate with each other is via private microcommunities, Cooney says. These are not your third-party social media sites like Facebook or Twitter, but rather secure, company-sponsored websites.

“We develop e-portals, which are really websites where there’s a lot of tracking of the data,” Cooney explains. “So, for instance, we have an e-portal for investigators who are all participating in the same clinical study. Or one for advisory board consultants who are all under contract to a pharmaceutical company. And then, there are ones for the speakers who are being trained.”

These special websites might include a member directory with contact information, discussion forums, areas in which members can upload content in order to share patient cases or anecdotes, and polling questions.

“Participants are allowed, for instance, to talk about outside-of-label things; it’s not allowed to get out to the public, but within that environment they’re allowed to engage in these kinds of conversations, and it’s okay from a regulatory perspective,” Cooney says. “We’re using these e-portals to really support the exchange of information and dialogue in between meetings.”

Evans says one of her pharmaceutical clients had the idea to set up a blog in advance of an industry event. Such a blog allows a company to engage its users in a more conversational way, but still offers a level of control over content posted. 

Another way to promote social media discussion in the med/pharma world is to use sites like Yammer.com and Todaysmeet.com. These websites are similar to Twitter but are private, secure, and require authentication to participate. Some, like Yammer, also allow account holders to restrict access by IP address, meaning they can be viewed only in certain physical locations.

The e-portals and private micro-blogging sites also provide companies with the ability to set up special group events—or flash mobs—during conferences and trade shows, Cooney says. “Flash mobs could be a way for people to communicate with each other, to say things like, ‘I’m at a great poster session,’ or ‘I’m at a great symposium,’ or ‘something great is happening at the exhibit area,’ ” he notes. “There are strategies planners can employ to foster flash mobs.”

One of these strategies is to advertise the private networks on the event registration page and materials, as well as create “tiny urls”—web pages with shortened, easy-to-remember handles—through which attendees can communicate.

These alternatives are all suitable workarounds to the security concerns of Twitter, which, with more than 300 million active users, is one of the top social media tools of today. But these solutions don’t address the other mammoth social networking site: Facebook. With more than 800 million users around the world, Facebook is the industry powerhouse. Until recently, pharma companies could set up private, invitation-only Facebook pages that restricted posting on the “Wall” to authorized users. However, the restricted “Wall” function no longer is available, Cooney says, and that has led many pharmaceutical companies to terminate their Facebook presences. 

Yet Facebook is so widespread that the general public has come to expect pages for everything, and companies that don’t have a presence may be at a disadvantage. So one group of medical and pharmaceutical marketing gurus at Intouch Solutions created PharmaWall, a self-described “fully moderated application that allows companies to engage with Facebook users in a regulatory-friendly social setting.” 

The company describes itself as wanting “to enable companies to have conversations with customers in the social space … without the worry of handling adverse-event reports, off-label treatment mentions, inappropriate comments, or misinformation.” What PharmaWall does is provide a backchannel for page administrators to approve, accept, decline, delete, and otherwise control the content that gets posted—both by users and administrators—to the Facebook page. 

“For pharma,” the company says on its website, “Facebook can be a scary word.” PharmaWall hopes to change that. 

And Cooney says it’s only the beginning. “We’re laggards, let’s face it,” he says. “As this stuff becomes more mainstream in other industries, which it is, you’ll see more and more of this. I think it would strengthen your meeting—and it would strengthen the industry—to support different things.”