• Uncategorized
  • 2

Pharma 2.0 – Pharmaceutical companies get social too

Web 2.0? Enterprise 2.0? Social Business? The simple truth is that companies don’t care about such buzzwords or about the same concepts behind them. For any manager in any field, the only important issue is how to find new levers to accelerate his / her career and help the company to be more profitable.

For this reason, perhaps the right question is: how can social be declined in my context (specific sector, geographic region, culture, national peculiarities, structure of the supply chain, etc.) allowing me to achieve such goals? While still understanding some general principles, I believe that to answer similar questions it is today necessary to dive into and understand peculiarities of the individual areas in which we move. A good example is the pharmaceutical industry.

Working with companies in the Pharma, you’ll notice immediately the resistance and fear of managers to social media causing a significant delay compared to non-regulated industries such as technology and communications but also a certain sense of inertia: it seems in Pharma it’is impossible to do more and no one else is doing more. But is that really the truth?

The starting point for these thoughts has been provided to me  by an upcoming I wrote together with Emanuele Scotti for AboutPharma. The overall idea was taking a picture about the level of adoption and best practices of social in the drug ecosystem. The result? So many ideas you that couldn’t find space in article. Here are then some additional points that you could find valuable.

The pharmaceutical sector is not immune to the social pressure caused by communities, social networking and other 2.0 tools. This is causing a sudden and surprising change in the behavior of all actors involved: drug companies, physicians and other providers, patients. Some numbers:

  • Patients are looking for the first time at social media as a credible and open access source to learn about their health. In the U.S. 80% of surfers are looking online for information on diseases and treatments, in 34% of cases based on content generated by other users, with up to a quarter of them willing to learn more about doctors, hospitals, drugs and therapies. While not experts, 70% of surfers evaluates as credible the content generated by their peers. The same thing happens in Europe where 9 out of 10 surfers (150 million people) use the Web not only to get informed but also to assess recommendations given by their doctor
  • If this is a matter of health for patients, it is also a business lever for doctors. In America, 89% considers the Internet essential to improve the medical practice, 84% looks for information on drugs and 71% takes part to social networks reserved to physicians. European colleagues are spending on average almost a day a week on digital tools and in 81% of cases Internet is seen as an indispensable source for their professional learning (Manhattan Research 2009 and 2010)
  • Pharmaceutical companies and medical facilities have sensed the opportunity. To get an idea just consult the wiki social initiative continuously updated by Dose of Digital with dozens of YouTube channels, Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and dedicated communities.

More than a thousand numbers, perhaps hundreds of platforms and initiatives can give an idea about how the pharma ecosystem is changing in any country:

  • Albeit with some difficulties to comply with regulatory constraints still unclear, pharmaceutical and health care facilities are wondering how to ride this wave of participation. Some communities are more or less explicitly related to a product as in the case of AlliCircles for GSK’s Alli or PKU.com for BioMarine’s Kuvan. More often the focus is a specific pathology: CFVoice for cystic fibrosis promoted by Novartis, ChildrenWithDiabetes to support childhood diabetes acquired by Johnson & Johnson, Earth CML for chronic myeloid leukemia sponsored by Novartis, DepNet on depression launched by Lundbeck in Denmark, HearingJourney on auditory systems sponsored by AdvanceBionics, AdvanceBreastCancer to improve the lives of patients with breast cancer by Brystol-Myers Squibb, HowIFightMSGateway MS and MS Village, with blogs and communities on multiple sclerosis. Finally we have to cite tens of blogs, Facebook pages, YouTube channels and Twitter accounts such as Johnson & Johnson (J &J BTW, Kilmer House, ADHD Moms, Twitter), GlaxoSmithKline (@ GSKUS), Novartis (Facebook and Twitter), AstraZenecaUS (Symbicort YouTube Channel), Roche (@ Roche_com), Boehringer Ingelheim (Boehringer @ and Facebook).

Beyond examples, the question is what is really happening with the spread of social media and what role can play pharmaceutical companies play in this new environment?

Among many reports, some not trivial answers can be found in the EPG Health Media research 2010:

  • Pharmaceutical companies are more active in social media (78%) than physicians (53%) or patients (58%). Their desire to use social media to reach and affect the whole health ecosystem is anyway not reciprocal.
  • That’s why doctors and health professinals want to interact primarily with each other, much less with patients and pharmaceutical companies
  • Also patients would like a wider access to doctors instead of just talking with companies or other patients. Although 65% of physicians and 70% of patients state that it is important to use social media to get in touch with each other, this rarely occurs due to lack of proper channels

  • While Internet use by operators is growing, publications (98%), conferences (95%) and colleagues (97%) still affect physicians more than social media
  • Although the Internet is the primary source of information for patients, the level of trust in online conversations is the lowest of all media (0% complete confidence, 19% a good confidence level compared to 37.8% of confidence with friends).


Social media is scaring in a heavily regulated industry as Pharma for some good reasons: the management of adverse events, respecting fair balance, off-label discussions on the use of drugs, loss of control and reputation damage of the brand, unclear rules (The FDA has yet to issue guidelines that are just been released in the UK).

Beyond the many points to be managed carefully, however, it is a fact that more than half (51%) of businesses already include Web 2.0 in their marketing mix, although spending online less than 5% of the budget at this point. In 2011 this budget is expected to grow in 57% of cases and the numbers will get probably higher once guidelines will get issued in other countries.

If social media in Pharma is not destined to disappear, we have no other option than better understanding how to capitalize on existing and future investment / effort. To do this, pharmaceutical companies have to start from the following:

  • Patients are in control, not pharmaceutical companies. The rules have changed because in social media it’s people dictating the conditions under which the exchange takes place. Unfortunately pharmaceutical companies cannot force doctors and patients to interact with them, nor can they control who participates in online conversations, the themes of these exchanges or channels in which they occur
  • Pharma companies can still make a difference enabling the right conversations. Giving up control can open the door to new channels in which patients and patients, doctors and doctors, but especially patients and physicians are able to get in touch
  • Adding trust. Besides the creation of new channels, the entire Pharma sector has the responsibility and opportunity to act as a trusted intermediary, capable of enriching conversations with reliable information in a transparent manner because this information is based on research. This need is very strong online and addressing it would help drug producers to get back some respect and to build a new relationship with patients.
  • A new way to promote your product. Influencing purchasing and prescriptions is still possible in social media times, but it should be done in a more sophisticated way. As it is already happening with B2B, given the dramatic drop in consumer confidence in companies and institutions, what more generally patients ask to multinational Pharma companies is simply to be useful by providing a decisive contribution in improving medical practice and individuals’ quality of life.

Given the different regulation that exists in Italy allowing marketeers to only use advertising for OTC drugs but not for those requiring medical prescription, which are the most interesting case studies of social in Pharma in our country?

This post is also available in: Italian

Emanuele Quintarelli

Entrepreneur and Org Emergineer at Cocoon Projects | Associate Partner at Peoplerise | LSP and Holacracy Facilitator