Using Social Networks to Guide Product Spend

May 01, 2011
By Pharmaceutical Executive

Online sentiment monitoring and analysis can help biopharma resource managers make crucial decisions about where money should be spent—at a time when budgets are strapped


Amit Rakhit
If you are like me, you don't have an endless supply of resources to allocate, and you have to make choices in order to get the most out of investment decisions. Given the variety of potential options for investment, and the impact of such decisions, it's important strategically to understand the perspectives of external voices, particularly when they're discussing your products and programs.

Per Wikipedia, "sentiment monitoring" (or "opinion mining") refers to "the natural language processing, computational linguistics, and text analytics used to identify and extract subjective information in source materials to determine the attitude of a speaker or a writer, with respect to some topic or the overall tonality of a document." These analytic techniques, combined with the adoption of social media channels by patients, physicians, and other interested parties, provide a wealth of information for conducting sentiment monitoring analyses.

When it comes to healthcare in particular, there is no shortage of user-generated content: A recent search on Google for the terms "healthcare blog" and "healthcare sentiment analysis" pulled more than 41 million references to healthcare blogs and over 227,000 hits on healthcare sentiment analysis. IHealthbeat reports that between 2004 and 2009, the number of US adults who went online searching for prescription drug information more than doubled, from 45.7 million to 102.3 million. In Europe, the Office of National Statistics states that 30 million people in the UK access the Internet every day, with about 40 percent looking for health-related information. Approximately half of all Internet users in France search regularly for medical information. Older adults are now more comfortable using the Internet on a daily basis, and the rise of patients on multiple medications and the associated costs have spurred an increased desire for information and choices.

Along with this increased activity, many online patient and healthcare sites have emerged. Some of them are general social networking sites, like Facebook, while others are specifically health-oriented, such as Google Health and Microsoft HealthVault. While Microsoft HealthVault is not routinely available for monitoring, except by a patient's physician, and Google Health requires patients to opt into third-party access, the growth of these sites illustrates the willingness of patients to share and discuss their medical experiences online.

For industry, potentially valuable partnerships can be formed with Electronic Medical or Health Records (EMR/EHR) companies, as well as prescription record-keepers such as PatientKeeper and Allscripts. Mobile health services like ePocrates, WebMD, and social media networks including PatientsLikeMe and Doximity, for example, offer valuable information for conducting sentiment analysis. To make the most out of monitoring, it's important to understand the nuances of each site or community, from the perspective of its users. Identifying those nuances adds value and context to the information being exchanged.

Physician social networks in particular can serve as an inexpensive way to gather information and also promote products. Pozen, a small drug developer, is currently promoting its migraine drug Treximet using a social media campaign of physician-only networks. Exclusive networks, such as Sermo and Medscape, have higher participation rates with respect to physicians and healthcare providers than do general sites like Facebook or Twitter, and professional-exclusive networks like doc2doc and Ozmosis feature lively conversations between physicians. All of these communities foster and facilitate discussions around various health topics that are of great interest to companies looking to provide a more customer-focused approach, since they offer a snapshot of customer perceptions and sentiment.

Patient associations, scientific societies, physician blogs, and media sponsors are just the tip of the iceberg. There are a growing number of sentiment analysis companies that offer algorithms and technology to help analyze the views being expressed on the Internet.

After identifying a trend or issue, how do you respond? Sentiment analysis offers near immediate interpretation of written communications, which can be invaluable when it comes to product launches and customer perceptions, but how do you translate this information to a meaningful strategy, and subsequently operationalize it into tactics which will ultimately benefit shareholders? One example is to see how to apply the learnings from customer sentiment and be innovative while at the same time improve the bottom line by cutting expenses.