Healthcare must exercise social media

John Milton wrote, "As there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinions in good men is but knowledge in the making." That's about as good a rationale for social media as I've yet heard.

John Milton wrote, “As there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinions in good men is but knowledge in the making.” That's about as good a rationale for social media as I've yet heard. But the truth is that different media, like blogs, text messaging, and mobile social networking, provide marketers with a terrific forum for communicating facts and sharing opinions on many of the thorniest issues in the healthcare policy arena. After all, communicate comes from the Latin verb “communico,” to share.

If social media is the new front line in the war of ideas, then bloggers are the Navy Seals. If “the medium is the message,” then the message from the healthcare blogosphere is, “Stop bloviating.” To paraphrase Bill O'Reilly, a blog should be a BS-free zone. And nowhere is this more needed than in healthcare.

The emerging phenomenon of social media presents marketers with many new communications tools and channels. Approaches have evolved from the most basic realms of text messaging and Web site enhancement to more advanced forms, such as mobile social networking and blogging. And, as the saying goes, “You ain't seen nothin' yet.”

In healthcare, both ethical and over-the-counter brands are living in this new media age, the general strategic thinking and approach by the pharmaceutical industry remains cautious – unsure of how – or if – it can engage the millions of “e-patients” currently scouring the Web each day for health information and guidance. At present, the discussion is focused on what the industry cannot do.

Just as the FDA dips its toe into the world of social media via a new partnership with WebMD, some pharmaceutical and medical device companies are stepping into something else – abuse of social media. Here's the dénouement – social media must play by the same regulatory rules as pre-social media.

After all, if the medium is the message – and the message is regulated – than the same rules apply, specifically FDA rules, guidances, and draft guidances. This is not rocket science, and pharmaceutical and medical device companies should know this without having to be told.

Social media is the wave of the present, and it offers powerful ways to market to and educate the public. Mistakes here are not acceptable and will only lead to more congressional fist pounding. The good news is that they are easy to avoid – just follow the rules. Social media must be used responsibly, in compliance, and for the benefit of the public.

While pharmaceutical “social media conversations” with patients are still a regulatory gray zone, advocacy partners can communicate more freely. In fact, patient education programs developed with advocacy organizations around a health issue are a fertile environment for connecting with target audiences through online communities, blogs, and related activities, such as blogger roundtables and podcasts.

Pharmaceutical companies have an opportunity to be the “trusted expert” when communicating disease awareness messages. As the number of “e-patients” searching the Web for information continues to grow, pharmaceutical companies have a chance to provide content that reflects its deep expertise, such as medical experts and data libraries. Sharing this knowledge can provide an effective and engaging way to be seen not just as the “selling drugs” business, but also as leading the healthcare conversation.

Peter Pitts is SVP and director of global health affairs for the global health practice at MS&L. He blogs at healthspeak.net.

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