Social media: potential minefield or new frontier for the pharmaceutical industry?

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Sheraz Gul

Social media has and continues to play a major role in communication and networking in a variety of areas, with the bulk of it taking place via Facebook, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, QQ, which collectively have in excess of 4 billion users [1,2]. The most popular professional social media networking website is LinkedIn which was acquired by Microsoft in June 2016 and has greater than 100 million registered users. With such a large outreach, these and other less well-known social media communication and networking websites are being utilised with increasing frequency by commercial organisations to communicate with existing customers as well as to lure new ones. In the case of the pharmaceutical industry, social media is now actively used to convey information relating to education, marketing, connecting with patients/physicians and receiving feedback. The major pharmaceutical companies have links on their websites to multiple social media websites and the potential of these is vast and thus far is largely untapped. However, statistics such as the number of visitors to these social media websites is comparable to those of other large industries such as finance and oil.

Benefits and risks of social media for the pharmaceutical industry

Safeguarding of information that the pharmaceutical industry disseminates via social media is essential. Although pharmaceutical industry websites contain a wealth of useful information, there appears to be a general apprehension in their use to disseminate medically relevant information [3]. The benefits of social media for the pharmaceutical industry are significant, such as its high outreach with messages being broadcast to other market segments [4]. A public hearing on the promotion of FDA regulated medical products using the internet and social media tools was held in 2009 with the presentations for all stakeholders that attended made available and this is a valuable resource [5]. Subsequently, a social media guidance webinar was held in July 2014 with all material also being publically available [6]. This is especially relevant, as the FDA have issued warnings in some cases where the existence of potentially objectionable information has been identified on social media websites [7]. The pharmaceutical industry should tread carefully in this territory, especially with third party data being a potential liability. This is because an imbalanced view of a product’s risks and benefits with erroneous claims being posted by such third parties (largely consumers) may capture the attention of regulators [8].

New trends and likely future directions

Despite the above caveats, social media offers significant benefits that should not be underestimated. Recent trends indicate encouraging signs of change as the latest raft of guidelines provides more clarity detailing new FDA guidelines [9, 10]. There are limitations of social media and the somewhat unclear regulations have impeded the pharmaceutical industry from utilising this channel whole-heartedly. However, the recent spate of laws governing social media use has brought more clarity to its use and may potentially embolden the pharmaceutical industry.

References and general reading


[2]. Pharmaceutical Marketing and the New Social Media.

[3]. One Thing Drug Companies Won’t Do On Social Media.

[4]. Greene JA, Herzberg D. Hidden in plain sight: marketing prescription drugs to consumers in the twentieth century. Am J Public Health, 2010, 100, 793-803.




[8]. Administrative Law & Regulation: The Regulation of Prescription Drug and Restricted Medical Device Advertising.



Dr Sheraz Gul, Head of Drug Discovery, Assay Development & Screening, Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology & Applied Ecology (IME) - ScreeningPort (SP). 

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