This is the second of a three part series examining how various groups will drive social media use in health care.  Part one considered the impact of physicians.  This week, I examine the evolving role of the pharmaceutical industry.   Though pharmaceutical companies have been slow to embrace social media, their usage will accelerate as a result of increasing clarity in regulatory guidance, industry advocacy, the growing influence of online health information and changes in pharmaceutical marketing tactics.
 
Lagging regulatory guidance, growing industry advocacy

Pharma’s lag in the adoption of social media has been due largely to a lack of guidance from the FDA.   In November 2009 the FDA hosted a public hearing on social media use by pharma; however, it has delayed issuing final guidance several times.  Most notably, the FDA just dropped social media from its 2011 guidance agenda.  Despite the delays, Tom Abrams, director of FDA’s Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising & Communications (DDMAC), maintains that publishing guidelines is the highest priority. 
 
In the absence of FDA guidance some firms are creating their own policies.  In August 2010 Roche disclosed its social media principles.  AstraZeneca followed in December 2010 with the publication of a white paper outlining its guidelines for social media use by the pharmaceutical industry.  More recently, in May 2011, medical blogger Dr. Bertalan Mesko launched the Open Access Social Media Guide for Pharma.  The goal of the project is to allow collaborative creation of guidelines that pharmaceutical companies can use to develop and refine their own policies.  Lack of FDA guidance may have slowed adoption of social media by pharmaceutical companies but it has not halted it. 
  
Social communities as a source of health information

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, patients are turning to online social communities for information on illnesses and therapy.  As noted in the blog eyeonfda,  if pharmaceutical companies do not participate in this space they will be allowing their brands to be shaped by outside forces.  The use of branded social communities, executed responsibly, can be a win-win situation:  social communities can provide patients with credible medical information about managing their health and pharmaceutical companies can build valuable relationships with patients; however, this potential has not been realized.  Many firms do not currently allow unmoderated patient comments in their social communities due to regulatory and liability concerns.

In August 2011 pharmaceutical firms will be forced to address the issue of community moderation.  Effective August 15, Facebook will require that unmoderated comments be allowed on all company pages, including those maintained by pharmaceutical firms.   Some predict pharmaceutical firms will abandon Facebook; however, there are signs that others will stay. Janssen already allows patient comments without pre-screening on its Psoriasis 360 Facebook page.  In July 2011, at the Social Communications & Healthcare Conference in New York, Ray Kerins, VP, Worldwide Communications for Pfizer, commented that Pfizer is planning to maintain its Facebook presence and has developed a plan to deal with the new Facebook policies. While the August 2011 deadline only pertains to Facebook, it will certainly shape the industry's use of all social platforms. 
 
Beyond patient engagement, the pharmaceutical industry may also turn to social media as a way to connect patients to clinical trials.  A recent white paper by Blue Chip Patient Recruitment addresses the use of social media in this area.  Recently, Pfizer announced it will use social media to engage patients during an upcoming clinical trial. 
 
Changes in promotional tactics

Pharmaceutical firms will expand their use of social media to communicate with physicians in response to marketing challenges.  Physicians are becoming more difficult to see and the number of pharmaceutical sales representatives has declined over the past decade.  Closed social communities offer pharmaceutical firms an alternative way to communicate with physicians.   Some firms have engaged with physicians indirectly, such as Pfizer’s collaboration with Sermo.  Other firms are establishing their own communities.  Consider iPractice by Sanofi-Aventis.  According to the site: “iPractice was created by Sanofi-Aventis U.S. exclusively for doctors.  It’s a hub of resources, tools and product support and information designed to help alleviate the burdens associated with running a practice.”   With this site Sanofi-Aventis has combined both product promotion and value added services in a secure physician community.  Of course, full access to the site requires physicians to register by providing information which will presumably be used by Sanofi-Aventis to target promotional activities. 
 
Today’s modest use of social media by members of the pharmaceutical industry hints at its huge growth potential.  As clearer guidelines emerge we should see realization of this potential. 
 
In part three of this series I’ll consider the role of the federal government in driving social media use in health care.