Marc Southern, Fleishman-Hillard: Getting to grips with social media for doctors

How much influence can PR professionals exert on doctor's fledgling social networks?

Over the past five years, the world of communications has seen the biggest change since the advent of television. One of the most significant drivers has been the online social network. The popularity of social networks is in part due to human nature, a desire to connect with like-minded individuals to share information and discuss things important to them.

So it is no surprise that healthcare professionals (HCPs) are getting involved and creating their own communities. Since the launch of the first HCP networking site (Sermo) in the US in 2006, these sites have been gaining momentum. Now, about 15 per cent of American doctors are signed up to Sermo or Medscape Physician Connect and there are at least 15 HCP networks in the US.

Most of these networks are free for HCPs to use. However, the networks themselves are making money. The models of each network vary; in the US both Sermo and Medscape Physician Connect allow pharma to interact with their communities at a cost. Companies can purchase access to view the ‘conversations’ on specific topics and detailed demographics of the HCPs involved.

This can provide critical insights that inform and drive communications strategies, and companies are able to initiate discussions with HCPs on relevant topics to educate and open dialogue on a particular issue. The participation of pharma in these networks provides the opportunity to interact, learn, share information and work with influential, knowledgeable HCPs.

Current networks require HCPs to verify their status and some impose geographical restrictions on participation – for example, only American physicians are able to access Sermo. However, networks are starting to emerge in the UK (BMJ’s Doc2Doc, forum and OnMedica’s webofmedicine). They are still in a fledgling state – OnMedica’s has yet to even launch. As yet no clear guidelines have appeared on what degree of participation they will allow from pharma beyond the usual type of paid-for promotions and surveys on professional healthcare sites.

However, modelled on the US experience, I believe we will see three options evolve for pharma participation in the UK and Europe: observation, research and engagement. Observation and research will be a focus initially. Observation can provide valuable insight (for example, early identification of issues or treatment trends), while research can be very targeted and meaningful.

But engagement may offer the greatest opportunity, by using the information gathered in these networks to participate in community discussions, and posting relevant information and services to the network when specific ‘conversations’ are taking place.

Pharma will want HCP networks to effectively manage their memberships by maintaining membership policies and providing clear data protection policies. Networks will also need to determine a process of pharma participation that is acceptable to members. Current regulations for communication with HCPs are not clear when it comes to web 2.0 and further clarity is required. Pharma should start the discussion with regulators, or risk having guidance that is outdated and restrictive.

Engagement with these communities must be relevant, open, honest and timely. Conversations and interactions must be seen as valuable by both HCPs and pharma, so speed of response and the ability to share information are key. As things stand, HCP networks are largely untapped by pharma, and the wealth of information available within them is overwhelming. Navigating the networks is going to be essential for healthcare communicators who work in the UK and Europe as the communications landscape changes evermore.

Views in brief

You’re in charge of the NHS for the day. What one change would you make?
I would wave my Hogwarts wand and ensure the electronic patient record
system was integrated into all the primary care providers, including
pharmacists, GPs, community health workers and social care providers.

What did you learn from the most challenging healthcare comms task
in which you have been involved?

When using digital tools, the focus should be on the message you are
communicating and not on the medium you are using to communicate.

Marc Southern is associate director, digital
healthcare, at Fleishman-Hillard UK

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