Is big pharma a social media nincompoop?

There's only one Golden Rule in healthcare social media : maintain 100% transparency, 100% of the time.

I just back from the ePharma West conference where I was pleased to give a keynote address on the future of social media in the healthcare industry.

Healthcare social media has precious few rules, but there's only one Golden Rule: maintain 100% transparency, 100% of the time.

Embracing social media means embracing regulatory ambiguity. That's a paradigm shift for an industry that has (in a post-Vioxx world) been going in precisely the opposite direction.

Social media (and its game-changing opportunities) demands a move away from the cautious tactics of the Vioxx Populi toward a better understanding of the digital Vox Populi. And that means more than sponsored Google links and branded Facebook pages with the interactivity turned off.

It means mixing it up with real people in real time. It's not going to be easy, or risk-free, or inexpensive. Whatever social media “marketing models” companies build will have to be elastic, just like the media environment in which they are designed to operate.

While Facebook strategies will have to be reexamined when drug makers are no longer allowed to disable comments on their pages starting August 15, the platform's new medical mandate may provide pharmaceutical marketers with an excellent opportunity to finally acknowledge and embrace the full capabilities of two-way social communication.

These changes represent a chance for a regulated industry to learn, understand, and embrace the three key tenets of pharmaceutical marketing 3.0:

The rise of the “face of pharma”
For the past 20 years, the overwhelming majority of pharmaceutical marketing budgets have been dedicated to promoting specific products.

Due to a less robust drug development pipeline and an increase in the rates of patent expiry, the next era of pharma marketing will put a company and its corporate reputation front and center.

When you think about it, it's a perfect match for social media, where transparency is the most urgent, non-negotiable, and magnificent mantra. The change will be defined not by third-party groups or KOLs (although these traditional avatars have their place), but a company speaking on behalf of itself and its products.

Social media in the era of post-patent medicine
I believe that the blockbuster era of the pharmaceutical industry will be replaced by the era of post-patent medicine. To compete against generics and biosimilars, pharma companies will need not only a robust portfolio of lower cost medications, but an army of brand loyalists.

Communications programs supported by social media will be crucial tools in this process because they're able to target people where they are.

Increasing patient education and prescription compliance
It's estimated that Pharma loses $30 billion a year in patient non-compliance. True two-way social media has the potential to serve as a new and puissant health education platform that will help keep patients informed about the dangers of non-compliance by earning their trust through transparent dialogue. And that's twice as true when it's mobile-based.

As another conference presenter, Dr. James Fowler of the University of California at San Diego, opined, “Pharma must realize their own network power.”

Peter Pitts is the president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, a former FDA associate commissioner, and was one of Modern Healthcare Magazine's 300 “Most Powerful People in American Healthcare” in 2010.

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