Pharmaceuticals need online media

Go online and you'll see plenty of commentary about drug companies.

Go online and you'll see plenty of commentary about drug companies. Yet, many companies stand on the digital sidelines, not participating for two, valid reasons: The legal and regulatory requirements relating to adverse event reporting on drugs, and the lack of FDA guidelines on Internet communications.

But is the industry's silence online a sound thing, particularly now with controversy raining down on the pharmaceutical industry?

Now is the time for an active dose of leadership to forge change, before change is enforced upon us. Unless companies boldly confront online communications issues, the industry could suffer further reputation damage and lose the opportunity to shape its own communications future.

Currently, for instance, adverse event reporting requires that every online mention by a patient or physician that is seen by a pharmaceutical company, must be reported to the FDA. Tracking down these events is cumbersome.

But, that may be changing. With Web crawler capabilities refined, Google and others have the ability to monitor online drug safety discussions, and unearth any troubling trends. Additionally, new physician social networking sites, such as Sermo, are being explored by the FDA as a means to gauge drug safety issues directly from the physician community - a powerful potential source.

Legal liability may have prevented pharmaceutical companies from communicating online until now, but it is likely that it will soon require companies to know exactly what is being said about its drugs online. Imagine congressman Henry Waxman probing a drug company executive in the not too distant future: "Do you mean to tell me that you did not know about the safety issues of your drug, when thousands of physicians on Sermo discussed these very issues just last week?"

But why wait until Congress intervenes? If we, as an industry, explored innovative communications approaches to evolve adverse event reporting online, we would help the FDA discover these adverse events, enhance patient safety, and improve the reputation of the industry.

There are simple actions that pharmaceutical companies can take online. Among these options are the inclusion of language that encourages patients to discuss adverse events with physicians, include pharmaceutical company customer service hotline information, and have the FDA Med-watch Web site address in all Web communications.

Small steps, perhaps, but these are big strides in showing a commitment to enhancing the overall safety of drugs.

The industry should consider establishing a partnership be-tween pharmaceutical company communicators, patients, and physician groups, dedicated to resolve some of the challenging issues relating to this problem - accuracy of information, equitable online access for all socio-economic and ethnic groups, and a code of conduct for pharmaceutical communicators.

For example, the industry could give money back to public education whenever it benefited from consumer-directed activities on-line. Draw the public to a company or brand Web site is not a bad start to improved reputations either.

Change is coming, and we can either wait for it, or we can be the voice of change and make a difference in shaping our future.

Ann Moravick is an EVP and director of global healthcare and brand advocacy at Ketchum.

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