A recent study by eMarketer found that one-third of U.S. companies now have a blog for marketing purposes, and that number is likely to rise to 43% by 2012. Break those numbers down by industry, however, and pharmaceutical and medical device makers barely make the chart. The biopharma industry is virtually invisible on the Internet, allotting less than 4% of its more than $4 billion direct-to-consumer advertising spend to online outlets in 2008. Unfortunately, this reluctance to move into the Internet realm ill-serves all consumers, particularly those in search of reliable, credible health information.

As the perspective “Pharmaceutical Marketing and The New Social Media” in the November 25 issue of NEJM states, at least 60% of Americans turn to the Internet first when seeking health information. Edelman’s own research through the Health Engagement Barometer showed an even higher figure: Three out of four Americans turn to the Internet for health information. The level of engagement that American adults crave from companies and organizations involved in health shows that these companies must do more. Companies and organizations now face a challenge—and an opportunity—to meet people’s demand for health engagement more than halfway.

The pharmaceutical industry’s avoidance of the Web stems from a lack of clear direction from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But the time has come to engage in the online world, whether or not the FDA issues rules for doing so. Drug and device companies have a social responsibility to go where the information seekers are, providing clear, accurate, and easy-to-find information about medications and devices. Granted, an active presence on the Internet has potential pitfalls, but with constant monitoring, clear guidelines (either FDA or internal), and a commitment to transparency, the medical industry should be able to satisfy both its customers and its critics.

The perspective published in NEJM, by Drs. Jeremy A. Greene and Aaron S. Kesselheim of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, was prompted by widespread expectations that the FDA may issue guidelines in the next several weeks for the use of social media by pharmaceutical and medical device companies. Drs. Greene and Kesselheim argue that physicians should be wary of any resulting Internet-based promotional activities for three reasons: 1) a lack of research on the health impact of such communications; 2) the difficulty in establishing the credibility of any information produced by entities with a financial interest in its use; and 3) the lack of mechanisms that would hold the FDA and drug companies responsible for maintaining the credibility of the information.

As a senior writer for BusinessWeek, Catherine Arnst—now a fulltime member of Edelman’s staff—wrote about this issue in November 2009, after the FDA held two days of public meetings to brainstorm guidelines for the appropriate use of social media by pharmaceutical companies. There is no lack of interest in the issue—more than 800 people signed up for the meeting, held in a room that seats half that number. Ms. Arnst wrote then that the FDA’s failure to provide guidance in this area has done the public a disservice, because many of the non-company sites that people land on during their Internet searches are misleading or filled with errors. The FDA has little, if any, authority and no resources to monitor the thousands of irresponsible online health information sites.

Drug companies have been reluctant to give consumers the information they seek online ever since the FDA sent letters to 14 pharma companies in April 2009 demanding that they end the brief display ads for products that popped up during Internet searches. The FDA wanted such ads to display side effect warnings – for which there is clearly no room – rather than providing safety information one click away. Some of the targeted companies switched to generic disease ads with no mention of a drug, but the law of unintended consequences kicked in. According to a Google study presented at the meeting, the number of consumers who clicked through the new ads seeking more information dropped dramatically when compared with the click-throughs on product-specific ads, an indication that the FDA’s policy was making relevant data about drugs harder to find.

Drs. Greene and Kesselheim are correct that the FDA and drug manufacturers must share the responsibility for oversight of any information disseminated via social media, and there is no question that such oversight will be difficult to carry out. But the industry and regulators owe it to the public to come up with ways to disseminate reliable information about medications and devices. In response to the concerns raised by the NEJM perspective:

1. Pharmaceutical companies could jointly sponsor ongoing and thorough studies into the health impact of online medical information, and adjust their own Internet offerings based on the findings.

2. Pharma companies should commit to being completely transparent about their sponsorship of any web site promoting a product, and clear and forthcoming about side effects.

3. The FDA could be notified about all company-sponsored sites, making it easier for the agency to monitor their content, just as it monitors direct-to-consumer ads.

The social media movement is about engagement. Pharma companies who choose to engage with consumers via blogs, Facebook and other outlets must be transparent about their policies and provide the same access to product information that they do through other media. The ability of drug and device manufacturers to provide the public with reliable product information can be enhanced by this medium, rather than hampered by it.

Pharmaceutical companies’ reluctance to engage with the Internet-surfing public is understandable. Web sites and applications can emerge, and vaporize, within months, and every user has his or her own method for surfing for information. By the time a company develops an Internet strategy, the basis for that strategy may have changed irrevocably, or disappeared altogether. Companies used to operating in a heavily regulated marketing environment may be hard-pressed to start thinking and acting at Internet speed.

These tasks may seem daunting, but it is surely the responsibility of the industry to shoulder them, in order to protect and serve the public. The Internet has become – and will continue to be – a major source of health information for the general public. It’s also a breeding ground for misinformation, which is why we strongly believe that regulated players (that is, manufacturers) need to be engaged. It is imperative that the biopharma industries develop these skills, because without a credible, consistent, and well-monitored presence online from scientists, providers, and pharma, the public is forced to sort through massive amounts of incorrect, misleading, and sometimes dangerously unverified content from people unqualified to provide expertise on the subject.

SOURCE Edelman Digital

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