Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Tithe on Pharmaceutical Marketing for Promoting Health

Yesterday, Fabio Gratton -- Co-founder, Chief Innovation Officer, Ignite Health, and ePharma Pioneer Club™ member -- was a guest on my LIVE Pharma Marketing Talk streaming audio show.

The first 30 minutes of the show was on the topic of social media marketing and specifically on new ways to measure social media communications success. The last 12 minutes or so, which did not stream live but is available in the podcast archive (here), was a segue into the social responsibility of pharmaceutical companies and how the pharmaceutical industry can engage in social media forums to improve the health of US citizens.

The transparency and authenticity demonstrated by the Obama administration "may be ... the way organizations should be thinking about how to deal with customers, how to engage, and how to communicate," said Gratton.

"I would love to have representatives of the CDC, the FDA, DDMAC, regulatory [people] within the pharmaceutical industry, key marketers, key patients, key doctors ... sit down and discuss what this industry should be doing," said Gratton. He was talking about establishing guidelines for using social media for disease awareness education (and product education) without the risk of being penalized from regulatory agencies.

He cited the fear and burden, for example, that pharmaceutical companies have of reporting adverse events that they may learn about via social media interactions. It's not just the reporting, but the requirement of tracking down every mention of an adverse event to do the reporting.

Even on this blog with a relatively small targeted readership, I get about one self-reported adverse event comment per week or so. I don't have to report these nor publish them, whereas it's not clear what a pharmaceutical company would need to do in a similar situation. It can be a huge problem for them considering the scale and type of audience that the pharma industry can reach.

"How do we generate guidelines -- not laws -- that help the industry navigate [the social media terrain] and do the right thing without fear of penalty?" asks Gratton. "I would love to see a guideline that says 10% of a company's efforts should be focused on general well being [education/information] surrounding a disease state," said Gratton.

I think Gratton was saying that pharmaceutical marketers have an accountability to the US population and a responsibility to devote some money and effort for health communications that promote general health and well being without being focused primarily on generating new scripts for drugs. If pharma companies do this, regulatory agencies should cut them some slack with regard to the use of social media, according to Gratton.

I guess it would be like a user fee pharmaceutical companies pay in exchange for preferential treatment by the FDA. I'm not sure how that can work from a legal perspective. FDA is free to offer guidelines and regulations that describe how they will enforce the law. So there is some leeway there.

Anyway, Fabio calls for a forum or roundtable discussion of these issues. I think that is a worthwhile project for the members of the ePharma Pioneer Club to take on and I will be working with Fabio to start the discussion going there. You are all welcome to join -- first tell me something about your self here.

You can hear Gratton's pitch here (WAV audio file).


  1. Wow that's great.

    I would be so pleased to see such guidelines updated to the participatory media era. I would love to join the roundtable as I'm working in pharma marketing in a social media/search landscape.

    Being unable to engage social media puts pharma at risk for major reputation management disasters (such as psuedo-science quacks) that hurt their brands as well as misinform the public.

  2. Yes, but is the discussion not balanced by education?

    Patients are the center of this industry and we should want to open channels of communication wherever possible. Some of the benefits of this communication include better informed patients, patients more eager to enter therapy, more awareness around clinical trials (and other non-prescribed therapies), and patients who are pre-qualified seeking treatment options. This list can go on!

    I agree with Fabio in that pharma should have these general guidelines shaping their activities. However I also believe we need to position this in even more clear terms - ie why a 10% guideline (for example) benefits the company and how we can measure ROI on this investment. Based on better-educated patients as I mentioned above, pharma's opportunity to engage on this level has at least two clear benefits:

    1) Reduced marketing costs if patients can use social media and communities to do research for them, creating engaged patients at a low cost who know what they want.

    2) The brand of "Pharma Company X" in the middle of these discussions creates the authority and awareness around treatment options.

    Overall the industry needs to get on the same page about risks and benefits. Guidelines help move us in the right direction but patient education is a central element in the discussion.


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