Social Media: The Voice of the Patient

Pharma executives must recognize the value and inevitability of social media, and their role in it.



In the main, there is a reluctance within the pharmaceutical industry to utilize social media. Since there is no easy method to measure the return on investment and mitigate any risks to the bottom line, it is understandable that executives doubt the power of social media. Pharma is a business after all. Since the industry is highly regulated, some pharma executives are fearful of the loss of information control and any damaging events it may give rise to.

The change towards digital communication, however, isn’t only inevitable, but it is already a growing reality. Increasing numbers of patients and physicians are looking to the Internet to provide them with credible and useful information. Manhattan Research conducted a study in 2012 showing that 72% of European online consumers use the Internet for health reasons, such as accessing health social networking websites, posting patient testimonials, or viewing health product and service reviews. In the same year, the research company partnered with Google and found that, on average, physicians spent twice as much time searching for health information online than in print media and dedicated three to four hours weekly viewing work-related videos on Medscape and YouTube.

The power of social media to reach out to patients and practitioners is clearly growing. Indeed, there are several aspects to social media that pharma executives must learn more about, as well as be intrigued by, in order to perform their role better and honor their responsibility to patients. The decision for pharma executives is not whether to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to social media, but to decide when and how to adopt it.

Learning from companies like AstraZeneca

Several pharma companies have begun to emulate outside industry businesses by establishing their online presence through YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and their own websites. However, a good number of them still limit their online usage to simply responding to patient questions.

There are a select few who are learning to enjoy the ‘first mover’ advantages of social media utilization, and who serve as good examples to other companies. AstraZeneca is one such example. Pharma still lacks a clear-cut set of policies when it comes to social media regulation, but AstraZeneca decided to publish their own guideline summary, which included a set of principles and rules on how each and every company member is expected to manage, behave, and respond to engagements in social media.

In 2013, however, despite their detailed and established guideline summary, AstraZeneca found itself in hot water when they were forced to take down one of their sponsored tweets, which was found to be “non-compliant” to industry regulation. The contents of the tweet, which were supposed to be unbranded, held a link that mentioned a prescription drug without the required safety information. The company performed damage control as best it could and learned from the experience. Indeed, rather than shy away from social media, they continued to increase customer engagement and loyalty through this method.

This event is evidence that digital transparency for pharma companies is still in its trial and error phase. However, it doesn’t have to be a barrier to enjoying the lucrative benefits of online communication with patients, caregivers, and healthcare professionals. Instead, it should give pharma executives more reason to prepare for the inevitable demands and possible risks in social media.

Efficiency in social media

More than establishing some form of digital presence, social media must be treated as a tool for strategy, which means it can and must be used with efficiency in mind. According to Ido Hadari, CEO to healthcare big data company, Treato, patient engagement has already evolved from simply being digitally present into extracting meaningful insights from conversations and feeding them into business decisions.

In terms of what pharma executives need to know about social media, “Patients are increasingly taking an active role in their healthcare, as seen through the mass amounts of data being produced online. It is important to understand the ‘why’ and ‘what’ behind patient interactions in order to drive key decisions throughout a brand’s lifecycle,” says Hadari. “Do not let the fact that this is soft data mislead you. There is hard science in this data that is essential to every environmental analysis and strategy being formed,” he adds.

Treato developed a platform that combines big data technology and analytics to consolidate and analyze conversations by millions of patients and caregivers across the web, which can then be organized into actionable business insights. The latest version of their platform, Treato IQ, has recently added an application that can allow healthcare companies to visualize social trends, gauge a broad yet real-time social sentiment, and gain insights into specific conditions or competitor brands. Treato IQ essentially makes the responsibility of listening to the ‘Voice of the Patient’ much easier for pharma and the healthcare industry.

Pharma companies that still have doubts about the business value that social media can offer need only look at the in-depth insight that Treato was able to gather from an analysis of last summer’s ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. The promotional activity was very effective given the high popularity, widespread awareness for ALS, and ample donations that it was able to successfully gain. However, a Treato analysis of more than 267,000 online conversations, as well as a survey of more than 500 Treato.com consumers, found that 43% of them were no more aware of ALS after the Ice Bucket Challenge campaign. Among those who participated in the challenge, 23% reported that they didn’t make an actual donation. Among those who did donate, only 14% said they were very likely to donate again the following summer. These kinds of insights can allow companies to gauge the loyalty of their audience and reassess the strengths and weaknesses of existing strategies.

Providing better medication

According to Hadari, “Social media is a critical component of understanding the patient and caregiver voice and ultimately delivering better health outcomes.” With good examples such as AstraZeneca and assistance from big data platforms such as Treato IQ, pharma companies can now provide better medication based on what they learn from patients online.

“Patients are actively discussing on social media what is and isn’t working for them,” Hadari observes. When pharma companies commit to a deep understanding of online patient conversations, they can gain greater insight into any unmet health needs, adverse effects and deterrents to patient adherence. “Pharma professionals can leverage social media to understand the patient’s experience of their medications and their competitor’s,” says Hadari.

Social media’s entertainment value

The Treato website observes more than 2.5 million patients, caregivers and executives each month who come and see what other patients are saying about symptoms, conditions, treatments, health providers, and support tools. Hadari says that patients, as well as pharma executives, are intrigued by, and thus engaged with, the content that has been designed based on an analyses of online conversations that concern them.

“By connecting the dots on millions of conversations, content gets their attention and captures their imagination as you have suddenly painted a new and fascinating picture of real people and real experiences that they can relate to,” he explains. When the burning questions of patients and care providers are continually satisfied, they become, and continue to be, more engaged with the brand and its content.

Other than using different media such as text, audio or video in delivering information to the audience, Hadari suggests learning the methods and best practices from the world of online gaming, which can remarkably grab a user’s attention, entertain, sustain focus and generate income. “Gamification of consumer-centric applications is playing a growing role in engaging patients and caregivers and getting them to stay committed to their health management obligations,” he explains.

Gauging patient sentiment

Social media can also help gauge patient sentiment, which Hadari considers as only one part of a broader online patient picture. “It is typically used to refer to the ‘lighter’ social mood of the online world,” he says, explaining how sentiment provides fewer and less in-depth insights as compared to heavily analyzed big data. However, he adds that sentiment tends to have higher trajectory and velocity, meaning that reactions indicating a certain sentiment travel fast, wide and in real-time.

“Social media monitoring helps track real world trends, issues or concerns in real-time, which allows pharma to respond to them, as appropriate,” Hadari explains. A company, for example, that is experiencing stock-outs for a specific product or drug can make several consumers very unhappy. Social media sentiment can quickly provide a top line view of the size and reach of consumer negative reactions. “Sentiment is a great tool to provide a quick snapshot of the social landscape. These insights can help inform patient education strategies that are relatable and understandable to those patients,” says Hadari.

More patients, care providers, and physicians are making use of social media to gain information and knowledge about health conditions, symptoms, and treatments; yet there remains a paucity of social media utilization within the pharma industry. Executives need to understand that the effective adoption of social media is inevitable, and that they can learn from first mover firms such as AstraZeneca. Furthermore, despite the persisting difficulty in assuring the financial returns of social media strategies, there are platforms available that provide a scientific method of understanding the patient and gaining valuable and actionable insights from them. Social media can – and should - be a vehicle for delivering improved customer service, better medication, engaging content, and quicker responses from pharma companies. Pharma executives play a critical role in allowing this to happen.


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