In our heavily regulated industry, a structured WOM program comes with some challenges as the control of the message is relinquished
to the consumer—at least to some degree. With proper training of participants, pharma companies have the ability to impart
accurate content that can then be shared with others who are interested.
People are enthusiastic to share their stories and tell others about the importance of treating a certain condition. And when
they are asked (as they often are) what product they're using, it's easy and acceptable from a regulatory perspective for
that individual to reveal the product that they were prescribed.
As a result, the brand gets some promotion, the consumers have had a meaningful discussion, and the ensuing dialogue that
the target consumer has with a physician should be that much more productive.
Many companies remain concerned about uncovering adverse events, either from discussions that may take place between consumers—or
in comments that may be made in an online community forum. The reality is that this is an issue that can be readily managed
if it is handled properly, through close coordination between the vendor, pharmacovigilance, and the brand teams.
Only serious adverse events and those that are unexpected (that is, not typically seen in clinical trials or identified already
in the package insert) need to be reported within 15 days to FDA; all others may be handled in a more reasonable time frame.
Of course, it is impossible to monitor what is said during an offline conversation, but by keeping the emphasis on non-branded,
educational information, pharma sponsors can stay on the right side of the line. Also, when communities are moderated and
focused on particular lifestyle issues (not specific products), the likelihood of uncovering AEs decreases significantly.
This type of real-world consumer feedback should also be viewed in a positive light as an early warning sign, in case there
are real issues with a marketed product. It also has the benefit of showing consumers that pharma listens and is responsive
about the products it sells.
Where Are We Headed?
Pharma must embrace that which is new and novel (think Internet, circa 1998), and push forward into areas that make sense
for brand promotion, not just because something is "new" but because it will build your brand in a way that other media just
Industry must continue to explore this dynamic area of word-of-mouth, and push through the inevitable challenges that our
friends in Legal and Regulatory throw at it.
There is so much more that pharma can do to shape and influence the conversations that people have, and that can lead to increased
awareness about disease states and proper treatment options by everyone involved. Additionally, consumers are enthusiastic
to participate, so everyone wins in the end.
Gee, that cough of yours sounds a lot like asthma. Are you taking anything to treat that?
Andrew Levitt is the founder and CEO of HealthTalker. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org