The debate, if you can call it that, over whether or not interactive social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter can be used in the life science industry is moving forward at glacial speed. I decided that it was time to propose some ideas rather than continue to admonish the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a lack of guidance.
There are several reasons which may explain the inertia surrounding the adoption of social media by pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical devices and diagnostics companies. First, and perhaps foremost, FDA has been consistently reluctant to craft any useful guidance on the use of Web 2.0 technologies for research, clinical or promotional purposes. The FDA’s Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising and Communications (DDMAC) is still trying to figure out how to regulate website content. Is it any wonder that FDA is reluctant to tackle the regulatory implications and issues associated with social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter? Second, a majority of social media advocates— who are leading the charge at many life sciences companies—are marketing and advertising executives who tend to look at social media strictly as a promotional tool. Finally, much of what takes place at life sciences companies is proprietary and confidential—information flow between the company and its employees and the public is fastidiously monitored and tightly regulated. Because of this, the life sciences industry’s “process” is intentionally opaque—which is contrary to the goals of social media which is to promote transparency (or the illusion of it).
There is no doubt that the life sciences industry is the most highly regulated industry on the planet. While this represents a formidable challenge for adoption of social media, it is by no means insurmountable—especially if social media is used for purposes other than branding, marketing and advertising. For example, the most straight forward application of social media at life sciences companies would be in the areas of corporate recruitment and employee retention. Many Fortune 500 companies outside of the life sciences industry have been using Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn for years for recruiting purposes. While not commonly acknowledged, life sciences companies have quietly begun to use Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace to recruit prospective employees. Interestingly, the new kid on the block—Twitter—looks to potentially be a more powerful recruiting tool than any of its predecessors. Unfortunately, employee retention is no longer a priority at many companies. However, before the economic meltdown a number of companies, most notably Best Buy, were experimenting with social media to retain talented employees.
Another potential use of social media is for pharmacovigilance and adverse events reporting. Companies with approved products on the market are required by FDA (and other regulatory agencies that approved their products) to set up post marketing surveillance programs for adverse events reporting. By law, companies that receive adverse events reports from consumers, physicians or other entities must report them to the regulatory agencies that approved the product. Regulatory agencies maintain adverse events databases for all approved drugs and devices to monitor drug safety. If designed and implemented correctly, interactive social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter (which operates in real-time) would make excellent pharmacovigilance and adverse reporting tools. Quite coincidentally, John Mack, who runs the Pharma Marketing Blog, reported a partnership between UCB and PatientsLikeMe.com to create a pharmacovigilance reporting platform for UCB products.
Recruiting patients for participation in clinical trials (to assess efficacy and safety of prospective new drugs) has become extremely challenging over the past few years.Traditional patient recruitment strategies include print, television and radio ads and in some instances, websites. All of these recruitment methods are costly, labor intensive and limited in their effectiveness because they only reach small number of prospective clinical trial participants. I contend that Facebook with over 200 million users, LinkedIn with members in over 140 different countries and Twitter which is growing rapidly would be ideal for clinical trial recruitment and retention purposes. Others have also proposed this idea.
Finally, while the use of social media to promote approved drugs and devices may be difficult because of regulatory constraints, it can be utilized to keep the public informed about prospective new medicines and promote a company’s image or brand. There is no question that the public perception of the pharmaceutical industry has been severely tarnished over the last few years. The industry’s continued lack of transparency and failure to adequately disclose potential safety risks about some approved products continues perpetuate a negative image. One way to restore public trust and confidence is to use social media to actively engage the public in conversation on wellness, addressing unmet medical needs and prospective new medicines and treatments that are being developed. Also, social media platforms could be employed to showcase community outreach programs and discuss educational initiatives to improve science education and training.
Social media is no longer a new phenomenon or technology. It is a legitimate form of communication which has become an integral part of the Web 2.0 experience. I suspect that the life sciences industry will have to make a decision about social media in the not so distant future—or possibly miss a potentially game-changing business opportunity. And, as Ken Kesey aptly said in Tom Wolfe’s ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’—“You’re either on the bus…or off the bus.”
Until next time…
Good Luck and Good Job Hunting!!!!!!!!