FDA, Biotech: It's Time to Get With the Social Media Program
BioWorld Today Washington Editor
When it comes to social media, there's a lot of finger-pointing between the FDA and biopharma.
But neither the regulators nor industry is doing a good job of looking past the technology to embrace the fundamental societal change created by social media, according to a group of digital experts.
As industry waits for guidance on the use of social media, it's been told to apply what's already out there to the new digital forms of communication.
But that doesn't work, Daniel Palestrant, founder and chief financial officer of Sermo, an online physician-only network, said Friday during a meeting of Pozen Inc.'s digital advisory board.
The interactive aspect of digital media is markedly different from the one-way, controlled-messages the regulations were written for and that biopharma is used to, he said.
In the past, biopharma messages were like pebbles tossed in a pond, and the regulations were written to shape that pebble, Palestrant said. But the communication consumers expect today is more like the ripples in the pond.
The advisory board was not optimistic about the often-promised and long-delayed guidance the FDA has said it would issue for social media.
After holding a public meeting on the subject in 2009, the FDA had promised the guidance by the end of last year. Then the delivery date was pushed to March 31. When the agency missed that goal, it stopped promising. (See BioWorld Today, April 7, 2011.)
The FDA's slow movement in this area could have a detrimental impact on patients' health, Bonin Bough, senior director of digital and social media at PepsiCo Inc., said. "We should hold regulatory agencies more accountable" for not keeping up with the changes society demands, he added.
Regardless of the FDA, "we have to operate within the realm we live in now," noted Marc Monseau, founder and principal of MDM Communication LLC. That realm isn't just about technology; it's about a fundamental change in how people and organizations communicate.
Bough agreed. "Digital has taken over every aspect of our lives. . . . Now, it's a world of two-way engagement," he said. "It's a world of consumer connection."
Monseau noted how consumers are used to engaging with other businesses through digital media and having customer service at their fingertips. The expectation is that they should get the same level of communication, service and support from drugmakers that market products that have a huge impact on their lives. "We as an industry need to recognize that," he said.
Because consumers are more proactive, drugmakers must be more interactive, Meredith Ressi, president of Manhattan Research, said. If a company is merely providing an 800-number on a static webpage, it's not meeting patient needs.
So What's a Drugmaker to Do?
For starters, biopharma needs to forget the dramatic moments and artificial stories of million-dollar commercials running on prime time TV, explained Raj Amin, co-founder and CEO of HealthNation. Today, communication is "about jumping in and really listening to what consumers are saying," he added.
Drugmakers also need to rethink the traditional sales rep model. Physicians are driven by the need to be efficient. Visits from sales reps can interfere with that efficiency, Ressi said.
She also discouraged drugmakers from putting vital online information behind password-protected doors that interfere with quick, easy access. Doctors want the information when they need it.
In place of the old models, drugmakers should develop a consumer-centric communication approach that focuses on building relationships with patients and physicians, as well as fostering the relationship between those two groups. Messages about drugs and biologics must be driven by real-time information, and the content must be useful and actionable, according to the advisory board.
Unfortunately, rather than embracing the broader social changes, biopharma has focused on the technology, simply expanding existing communication plans by adding on social media channels such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter or a phone app.
To effectively engage in this new world, industry should forget about add-ons and bolt-ins. Instead, it must begin fresh, developing a core communication strategy on an organizational level, Bough said. That strategy should start with where the consumer is and then build new ways to connect with him or her.
Developing such a model will require reallocation of resources, new infrastructures and a new way of thinking about communication.
The reality is that there's a conversation going on about health care, diseases and treatments. If biopharma doesn't enter that conversation, it will miss opportunities to share vital information with empowered e-patients who are emerging as patient advocates, Monseau said.
He cited the example of a diabetic patient who created a blog that has attracted 20,000 followers, but there has been no industry interest or interaction with the blog. People are crying out for accurate, timely information, Monseau said, adding, "there's a huge opportunity for industry to be part of that."
Pozen, a small pharma firm based in Chapel Hill, N.C., assembled its advisory board of "digital thought leaders" to help it engage with customers in a meaningful and efficient way and map out a launch strategy based on social media that can help it compete with big pharma. (See BioWorld Today, July 20, 2011.)
Published: September 17, 2011
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