Using Social Networks to Guide Product Spend

May 1, 2011

Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-05-01-2011, Volume 0, Issue 0

Online sentiment analysis monitoring can help biopharma resource managers make crucial decisions

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

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.

Amit Rakhit

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.

Here's an example of what has worked for me recently in my role as medical lead for several international markets. My team and I used sentiment analysis from our customers to develop an innovative approach to field interactions:

1. Information flow typically sparks innovative ideas. I let my teams improve, explore, and pilot ideas. We don't just reflexively react to sentiment analysis but use it proactively as a tool to help spark innovation. For example, we learned that geographical barriers were an issue with our field teams in Australia—it's difficult to meet face-to-face frequently when you're a great distance apart. One approach to resolving this issue was by implementing web video technology, which is meeting with good success.

2. Pilot projects are good if you can transfer them elsewhere. In Australia, we used webcam video technology to circumvent issues with geographic distance. So far, this has proved to be very popular because it provides real-time access between healthcare providers and our regional headquarters in Melbourne. The cost of implementation was similar, if not cheaper, to the cost of one round-trip airline ticket. We're now trying to replicate these activities in Canada.

3. Keep key stakeholders aware by communicating often. It probably goes without saying, but it's worth mentioning that I have had the best results when key partners were kept aware of what we were planning. That way, communication channels are open for feedback, guidance, insights, resources, and support. Specifically I partnered with the commercial teams, market access teams, compliance/regulatory, and global/local medical teams to keep everyone informed, and to get advice on next steps.

4. Have a plan to monitor success. Define metrics upfront. Be specific about goals, so that outcomes are properly assessed.

5. Celebrate successes and failures. Not everything will work, but much can be learned from a failed attempt.

I ask my teams to approach resource investments much as they would their own personal finances: spend wisely without wasting dollars, whether it's for travel, a new program to support a product launch, or a new hire. For example, we learned that the efficacy and safety profiles of compounds are routinely discussed by patients online. With insight from this sentiment monitoring, we were able to design followup studies—including health outcomes studies and Phase IV trials—that would potentially yield results that better inform patients on the appropriate usage of our medicines.

Gauging sentiment online does present challenges, since online conversations are an inherently biased representation of perceptions. Not every user of a product will be chronicling his or her experiences on the Internet. I admit that when planning a trip, I'm an avid TripAdvisor reader, and view many comments and recommendations that other consumers have left on the site. However, I don't often post my own opinions after a trip; even though I intend to, I somehow don't prioritize it, and eventually don't end up doing it. Thus, I rely on what the more active bloggers and commentators have to say, even though there may be thousands of individuals like me whose opinions are not represented because we don't typically post comments.

Despite this limitation, sentiment analysis can be a useful tool as we plan activities and respond in real-time to customer perception, which hopefully will ultimately lead to better investment decisions in the interest of shareholder value.

Amit Rakhit is Vice President, Intercontinental Medical, at Bristol-Myers Squibb. He can be reached at

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