Last week, for the first time in more than a decade, the US Food and Drug Administration convened a hearing on the promotion of FDA-regulated medical products via online channels, including the latest online phenomenon: social media. Suffice it to say, there was a lot to catch up on.
When FDA last assessed Internet use in 1996, the online experience was not nearly as rich or widespread as it is today. The “140-characters-or-less” confinements of social media do not allow for the safety and adverse event reporting FDA typically requires in promotional efforts.
Without up-to-date guidance to dictate appropriate use of this new medium, pharma companies are effectively left with their hands tied. This past March, FDA issued warnings to 14 leading drug makers for not including fair balance and safety risks in online Google ads – a reprimand impacting both pharma and Google, once the ads were pulled. As one would imagine, this was a hot topic at last week's hearing for all involved.
With more than 227 million Internet users in the US, and digital technology evolving rapidly every day, the buzz around social media is rampant. Some companies have adapted to it faster than others, and even the stragglers sense they should be more engaged. Identifying the sweet spot between “new” and “industry standard” is critical; delays do not serve a company or its customers well.
In October, Euro RSCG Worldwide commissioned a survey of 1,700-plus social media users to determine the role of social media in their lives and how they believe it will serve them in the future, with an emphasis on healthcare. Nearly nine out of 10 consider the Internet a reputable source of health information. More than 80 percent research treatments online and 44 percent would leverage social media to do so in the future.
Perhaps most compelling: Nearly one-third use online research to initiate physician conversations, informing their offline experiences with their online ones. The argument for the value of social and online media in healthcare is clear.
The timely intersection of social media advances and the current healthcare reform debate presents a compelling challenge to private and public sectors alike. As of this writing, the House of Representatives voted to approve healthcare reform; the Senate vote is still to be cast. If passed, this legislation could provide unprecedented healthcare access, with profound effects not only on the level of care Americans receive but also regarding the information that health-related companies will have to provide consumers to inform their decisions.
The results of last week's hearing will be equally profound. FDA guidance isn't expected until late 2010 at best, but given the potential deluge of online health discussions on the way, that clarity could not come soon enough.
Kevin Bannon is an associate VP at Euro RSCG Worldwide PR.