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So What is Pharma’s Ideal Role in Social?


Advertorial: Ashfield Commercial & Medical Services believes that Pharma can use social media to play an important role in educating the healthcare professional (HCP) and the patient

“The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as being heard” - William Hazlitt


Pharma currently

Patients and Healthcare Professionals (HCPs) are active on social media and closed community forums, but Pharma are relatively inactive. Understandably worried that it will say the wrong thing, sensitive to criticism, mindful of unintended consequences, and nervous of having to report adverse events, pharma usually prefer to stand on the sidelines in a state of social anxiety. Social conversations are influencing patients and physicians; however, what role should pharma take in this conversation?


What pharma's role should be

Ashfield Commercial & Medical Services believes that Pharma can use social media to play an important role in educating the healthcare professional (HCP) and the patient, and that providing them with as much relevant information as possible, will ultimately lead to improved health or patient outcomes. Pharma can adopt a signifcant role in these circumstances if they understand their audience and the value they can provide by being active, as well as the consequences of not being involved.

To engage with customers and patients in a meaningful way, pharma must develop tactics to address and align information and educational needs across all digital channels. Thinking about the future comes down to overcoming three key challenges: truly knowing the customer; multichannel services, and data driven accountability. Increasingly digital channels are a vital part of reaching the right customer, with the right message, at the right time (see diagram below).

To determine whether social is a valuable part of the channel mix, Ashfield recommends you listen, learn, engage and evolve. Pharma need to be aware of the evolving digital landscape and changing audience needs by constantly listening into platforms, learning, testing their chosen form of engagement, and being prepared to change tack to suit.

Pharma's social strategy

Generally pharma should act as a benevolent host on social media, providing a mixture of:

Value: high quality, scientifically robust, owned content on a channel that the audience use to research and discuss

Hosting: investing in different stakeholders, communicating and working together to improve health outcomes.

Although social strategies are complicated by the emergence of new social networks focusing on these core aims, rather than technological developments, ensure the strategies meet the needs of the target audience.



Currently both physicians and patients have to find information on disease states, treatment options, and ongoing and future management, in an ad hoc manner. 

By not being involved, pharma are requiring their audiences to muddle through as best they can, until someone pulls the information they need together, assesses it and provides them with a simple way to access it - essentially a healthcare information broker. Pharma can take this role in social.

The educated HCP

In a 2014 Medical Education Future Forum (MEFF) initiative, conducted by Ashfield Healthcare Communications with Medical Futurists, one leading doctor remarked, “We will see a landscape of educational content emerge”. At first sight the quotation seems prophetic, however, it reveals the shortcomings of what pharma have so far been providing HCPs with.

Another says “I need to learn ‘in time’ on the fly. I have developed my own ‘hack’ by learning on Twitter and using other technologies to gather, filter and share information when I need it”.

Physicians and patients are searching for simpler ways to learn and achieve their goals and are still seeking ‘Life Hacks’ (strategies or techniques that can be adopted in order to manage time and daily activities in a more efficient way) as short-cuts.

The informed patient

Patients can quickly become experts in their disease, they seek each other out, educate and inform each other, share resources e.g. trial recruitment, and establish great networks e.g. The Pfizer Get Old campaign, all via social media.

The Pfizer Get Old campaign was important because its success allowed for a dialogue to occur. The impact of the campaign was to ensure that the public feel more comfortable about sharing what is important to them with regards to their life, their health and their families, and in sharing they learn about key health issues and feel comfortable interacting with their healthcare professionals.

Pharma can take responsibility to ensure patients are equipped with the appropriate tools and resources to engage with each other through the channels they are using.


Hosting: Learnt Behaviour

The educated HCP

Social media is not the best place to easily find all the information healthcare professionals need and wish to learn; however, this is expected to change. The consensus of medical futurists at the Medical Education Future Forum was that ‘Social media will be a platform for cooperative global learning'.

Indeed, Tweetchats are beginning to display signs of future potential for cooperative learning. Often these have been high level and lacking in a clear discursive learning element. However #Microbiotachat was a good example of experts challenging each other on nutrition, health and science.  Due to the high scientific quality only a handful of experts took part, but the value was in the bringing together of people in a conversation which was then visible to hundreds of thousands of others – a case of communicating directly with the right people who you want to be involved, who subsequently generate a huge amount of ‘noise’.

We expect to see similar, targeted, and valuable conversations in the coming years, but with increasingly clearer objectives, structure and participation level – to see more quality over quantity.

The informed patient

The importance of health is a universally shared value. Social media is driven by the inherent desire in people to seek connections with each other for shared experiences. In order to capitalise on this opportunity pharma needs to learn to identify, and tell, compelling stories that highlight the benefits of medication, adherence and optimal disease management. Success stories like these should be approved and shared through social channels to demonstrate real impact in the lives of consumers, and enhance public goodwill toward the company.

So, pharma's ideal role in social?

Pharma should utilize social media to learn more about their audience and seek to engage to improve health outcomes by better educating healthcare professionals and informing patients. By being present, by joining in the social conversation, and through collaboration, who knows what could be achieved in healthcare……

It all starts with listening, rather than just being heard…

About the Author

Ruth Herman is Business Development Director at Ashfield Healthcare Communications. Her role involves enhancing medical communications through innovative use of new technologies to meet the real-world needs of healthcare professionals and their patients. She brings over 20 years' experience of working with many of the world's major healthcare companies to design and implement medical communication programmes that address the challenges faced by Pharma and by healthcare professionals. Ruth led the design and implementation of the Ashfield Medical Education Future Forum. She can be contacted at ruth.herman@ashfieldhealthcare.com and tweets about trends in medical communications at @ruthhermanAshfield Healthcare Communications is the global leader in multichannel medical education, healthcare communications and PR, delivering scientific content to relevant audiences via their preferred channels.

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