Social Media in Latin American Healthcare: It’s Time to be Brave

Mass adoption of innovative tools in any discipline can be difficult, and traditional industry sectors like pharmaceuticals always tend to be the slowest. But many firms must change their mindset when it comes to communication or they are at risk of being left behind for good.

In 2007 the Forrester Group predicted that the adoption of online media would be almost instantaneous, later delaying their forecast by about 24 months when the global recession hit.

Now, over four years on, while there are some pharmaceutical and medical device companies courageously paving the way forward with social media, there are still many laggards that have yet to jump on board, according to Ángel González, Founder & CEO of social media advertising company, Ideagoras. “Based on our experience dealing with social media projects in the pharmaceutical space, we recognize that there are some companies that have not been brave enough to make this step to break in social media,” he says, adding, “Yet there is huge room for expansion in this area, including the generation of brands and the collation of the voices of company shareholders located worldwide.”

We recognize that there are some companies that have not been brave enough to make this step to break in social media

Global drug manufacturers are experiencing a downturn of their own with the loss of patent protection. And without the commercial market they are accustomed to, they are also suffering an identity crisis. While the profit and loss commitments of the corporation still have to be met (an issue that has led to major layoffs in the sales representative department), marketing structures and consumer/patient relationships should be reviewed and prioritized, says Mr. González. “Some pharmaceutical companies have begun to re-invent themselves. They are trying to understand how online collaboration creates and improves other avenues of communication across the industry. This involves taking advantage of media tools to relate both with doctors and patients in a more harmonious and relevant way.”

Encouraging activity in Latin America

In Europe, therefore, the pharma landscape is still essentially at an early adoption stage.  And in emerging economies such as Latin America (LatAm), the development process is almost four years behind.  But although this region is just beginning to embrace social media, it is not lumbered with the monetary issues that their European rivals face.  Says Mr. González: “Despite companies, bloggers, doctors and patients fostering the adoption of social media in LatAm, the region still lags behind its European counterparts.”

“But there are determined people in the region that first started to foster the adoption of social media two years ago through Twitter feeds such as #hcsmla (healthcare social media Latin America). Led by esteemed medics and resolute survivors, groups like these are advocating and promoting the adoption of the social web in the region.” 

Without the drawback of monetary concerns, and driven by a belief that increased communication can be a healing process, this campaign for adoption could very well prove a success.  Yet, perhaps the most important development that can occur at the moment is that drug manufacturers recognize that their interaction with doctors and patients must change. 

Regardless of location, they need to maintain a level of humanity in their approach in order to properly dialogue via the social web, insists Mr. González, giving the example of the Merck Serono website Concibe, which is targeted at women and couples in Spain who want to get pregnant, some of them at a later stage in life.  “The site is intended to educate and empower those couples, but this is not the only platform utilized to relate with them. We also communicate with these people on an immediate basis via social platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.”

“This allows couples to really dialogue with us, as through this type of interchange, Merck Serono has been successful in connecting its brand Concibe on a human level. Concerns, worries and experiences are publicly shared on platforms such as Twitter and the conversation is also displayed at the official website,” he says.   

Learning the ropes

Yet, Mr. González will admit that there are a few negative aspects to the relatively nascent tool in the pharmaceutical industry but qualifies that this is mainly due to unprofessional usage of the social web, which is typical when adopting any new discipline.  The example cited to illustrate his point involves Motrin, an Ibuprofen drug manufactured by Johnson & Johnson (J&J), who asked a capable advertising agency to create an innovative TV commercial to market the product. The result was rather irreverent and not very well received. Directed at women with babies or small children who used pushchairs, the ad advised that the infants be carried in their mothers’ arms instead, with the tongue-in-cheek conclusion ‘Don’t worry about the weight and subsequent pain as you can take Motrin’. Instead of accepting the message as creative license, many women took it as an insult and uploaded recordings and tweets demonstrating their disappointment with the pharma firm.

If this follow up discourse doesn’t occur, and if you don’t pay attention at all times, you risk losing the real value social media can bring

“I understand the fear of the pharmaceutical companies,” says Mr. González, “But what I don’t understand is that there are currently many advertising campaigns either in the public consumer area or in the health professional area that are running in the traditional way yet the companies are still not listening to the subsequent interactions – this is how to get value from the campaigns.”

Shortly after the J&J ad was shown, the entire campaign was pulled and the firm’s marketing director had to apologize. Now one of the front runners of the social media space across the pharmaceutical industry, J&J seem to have learned their lesson well.

Tapping into social media platforms enables access to an excellent intelligence arena that can subsequently support further investigation, assist in R&D, and empower better relationships between pharma, physicians and patients.  But the implementation of social media involves consistent and continuous monitoring as gathering intelligence is only the first step prior to essential dialogue, says Mr. González.  “If this follow up discourse doesn’t occur, and if you don’t pay attention at all times, you risk losing the real value social media can bring,” he concludes.


Ángel González will be speaking at this month's Multichannel & Digital Marketing Latin America event in Mexico on the role social media can play in today's healthcare strategy. For more information or to see who else is speaking visit the official website.

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