Opportunities and Risks: Social Media Activities and Pharmacovigilance Responsibilities

Pharma IQ

On Monday Facebook stopped letting pharmaceutical companies disable the comments feature on their company pages. This change has prompted some pharmaceutical companies, such as AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson to remove some of their pages and update their social-media policies.

The pharmaceutical industry is fast catching on to the possibilities that social media holds, but it must equally quickly realise the challenges it presents.

Pfizer is among those which learnt the hard way after having its Facebook page hacked, leading to the posting of negative company news on its profile. But, tellingly, Pfizer said it is still going to forge ahead with its social media strategy.

The collection of drug safety information is one area in which major players in the industry believe social media could prove a valuable tool and research suggests consumers are likely to oblige.

According to a study by ROI research, healthcare and pharmaceuticals are among the top five categories users are willing to express dissatisfaction with over a social network.

In the 202020 VISION report from Ogilvy Common Health Worldwide, patients routinely sharing information online was identified as one of the top 20 emerging digital trends in healthcare and 34 percent of those who participated in the research said they felt the rise of the digitally-empowered consumer was a key factor to watch.

But inevitably where opportunities lie there are also challenges.

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) Pharmacovigilance Expert Network recently published its guidance on how companies should handle information on adverse effects reported on websites they either own or sponsor.

It recommended that all social media projects created have in place an adverse effects monitoring plan and acknowledged: "Company sponsored sites used for external communication purposes can be designed to facilitate the pharmacovigilance process."

A series of strategies for facilitating the reporting of adverse effects were detailed, including links to external reporting tools or a formal registration process, which will allow for the follow up of safety information posted by users.

"A moderation process can be implemented which allows companies to define moderation activities which would include actions to be taken in response to safety information being posted," the guidance recommends.

It also states all adverse effects should be collected and documented regardless of the seriousness of the incident, if the reporter can be identified, if a causal or direct link to the product has been stated or if the event has already been reported to the regulatory authorities or the company.

Information on whether this guidance is being acted upon in the UK is not readily available, but research from the US suggests that pharmaceutical companies have some way to go when it comes to aligning safety information posted online by users and regulatory reporting requirements.

Analysis conducted by Neilsen in 2008 identified that out of 500 online messages, just one contained all the information needed for adverse events reporting under Food and Drug Administration guidelines.

The research also identified an equally challenging problem for companies looking to social media to enhance their pharmacovigilance activities; just four of the 500 actually contained information on adverse events.

Engaging patients with their online efforts remains a challenge for pharmaceutical companies, despite the millions of people who are members of social networks worldwide.

Even once they are talking, few actually specifically discuss the product in question, and research shows that companies that try to push product discussions are likely to receive negative feedback.

Research conducted by Wave Metrix assessing the Claritin US Facebook page found 25 per cent of all postings were from administrators, far higher than the 10 percent recorded for most groups.

Some 80 percent of the posts focused on generic discussion, but when Claritin was mentioned – something which was never prompted by the administrator – all sentiment was positive.

In contrast, Zicam's Facebook page, in which mentions of the product were often pushed by the administrator – saw 15 per cent of the postings take a negative stance. Indeed, conversation on the product was found to polarise users.

This leads to one of the other challenges pharma companies face using social media for safety information, the possibility of receiving seriously negative publicity, something companies cannot afford in such a competitive industry.

The statistics are clear; consumers are using social media and are increasingly beginning to engage with brands. However, pharmaceutical companies must find a way in which to first engage them before they can begin to really use online communities to make a valuable contribution to their pharmacovigilance efforts.