For decades, pharmaceutical firms have tried using different types of promotions to affect physicians prescribing behavior. This led to misconceptions related to pharmaceutical marketing practices and induced the need to unveil the true meaning of pharmaceutical marketing. Pharmaceutical marketing, as a sub-branch of marketing, evolved over the years from a more product-oriented strategy to a consumer-oriented strategy, following global trends.
In the last two decades, there has been a major shift from traditional media to digital media, profoundly changing the way information flows. The race for information access has led to patients, physicians, and all other healthcare stakeholders becoming more demanding. In order to reduce these pressures and establish a long-term relationship with the different stakeholders, pharmaceutical firms need to follow marketing trends and move on to digital communication channels, such as social media. The emerging importance of social media in business organizations is raising the awareness of decision-makers toward this theme. An ongoing dialog on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram between firms and consumers compels the search for new management communication models.
Rules and limitations:
The pharma industry, however, may have seemed slow on the uptake. Given the strict regulations around what can and cannot be said – not to mention what can and cannot be advertised – drug companies simply haven’t had the same freedom as, say, consumer goods companies to promote their products.
Pharma companies have policies that heavily restrict their use of social media and limit their ability to benefit from the wealth of data that could accompany it. Patients are often not allowed to know about or discuss the options for treating their condition, in case they try to treat themselves and then sue the pharma company sponsoring the media channel for the worsening of their predicament. Unfortunately, this can also serve as an obstacle for healthcare professionals.
So what rules do pharma companies need to follow on social media? Clearly, it depends on where you are in the world, with some countries imposing stricter regulations than others.
In the UK, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry is responsible for setting the guidelines. It states that prescription-only medicines can’t be promoted to patients under any circumstances, either via social media or traditional marketing channels. Pharma companies are, however, allowed to share information impartially on social media, so long as they comply with the code. Given the concerns around overly restrictive regulations, the code has recently been updated, with the 2021 Code due to come into force in July.
In the US, where pharma companies routinely use television adverts to market their products directly to consumers, the rules are somewhat laxer; they can use social media for the same purpose, so long as it complies with guidance from the US Food and Drug Administration.
Social media platforms also tend to have their own rules around health advertising. Facebook, for instance, has banned adverts that imply the reader has specific attributes (including disabilities or medical conditions), which means advertisers would need to be careful about wording. YouTube restricts the advertising of some pharmaceutical products, and companies need prior authorization to advertise on Twitter.
The benefit of social media communication and patient awareness:
The industry has done a good job of making sure healthcare professionals and patients stay informed. Pharma companies need to present a digital environment that helps time-taxed, highly patient-focused professionals find the information, resources, or medical liaison they need quickly. they’re providing information to the patient and they need to make the information accessible, relevant, and intuitive. The industry is proving ever more capable of leveraging social media.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, pharma companies and HCPs could rely on face-to-face interactions to provide patient support. There was already a trend toward incorporating more digital solutions into patient support, and the pandemic accelerated it. What we’ve found is that digital transformation can improve patient engagement by making it more accessible. The goal is to continue to expand our knowledge base and push for ever-higher accuracy so that both patients and HCPs can get instant access to the information they need. The takeaway is that designed and implemented properly, intelligent automation can make it easier for HCPs and patients to communicate, remove patient support barriers, and help pharma companies deliver better care to patients. The benefits of enhanced patient support apply to everybody, from pharma and life sciences companies (across therapeutic areas–oncology, HIV, respiratory, infectious disease, chronic disease, and more) to HCPs to the people they treat. When patients get the support they need, they are better informed and more likely to comply with treatment protocols. Their results will be substantially better than the results of patients who are less compliant.
Increasing affordability pressures on healthcare systems mean that pharmaceutical companies have to demonstrate value propositions to payers that go beyond clinical efficacy. This is particularly true for chronic conditions and degenerative diseases, where there is a long-term burden of care, but also increasingly important for cancer therapies, which can require a complex care regime, and can also be very debilitating for patients. Here, quality of life and the patient experience is hugely important and pharmaceutical companies are increasingly being measured on these ‘ qualities of life’ dimensions. Patient outcomes can be improved through a number of means. Better education is an obvious avenue, both for healthcare professionals, and for patients and caregivers. Adherence is another important factor, especially where treatment benefits may not be immediately felt by patients. Many therapies have unpleasant side effects and, while these may abate over time, patients can often discontinue treatment too early. Appropriate patient support can help patients through the on-boarding and initial treatment period, improve long-term adherence, reduce discontinuation, and ultimately, deliver a better health outcome.
Tips for better engagement:
In a highly regulated environment such as the pharmaceutical industry, there will always be challenges when using a medium such as Instagram, which is a fluid, real-time, and highly interactive channel.
Instagram provides companies with the ability to share user-generated content. Pharma companies can leverage this feature and facilitate the sharing of follower stories to help spread awareness about any given topic.
Instagram Stories is a powerful feature that offers pharma companies additional opportunities to share behind-the-scenes content and live stories and foster engagement with their followers with calls-to-action and other pertinent messaging.
- It’s important to use fun, fresh, engaging photos
- Pictures need to jump out of the feed and get people’s attention
- Captions can’t be too long or too short
- Instagram stories offer a light and fun way to approach social media
On a more tactical level, social media content creators should consider the purpose and intended placement of the assets they’re creating. It doesn’t really work to create one asset and put it on all platforms. It’s more effective to create posts specifically for Instagram. brands should take a page from unbranded campaigns, which use short-form content that leads to a separate Web experience. Pharma companies also need to build a social presence that helps people manage their condition and connect with healthcare professionals, associations, communities, and others across the entire treatment journey.
Use social media accounts to show customers that you genuinely care about their health and you want them to live a healthy lifestyle – regardless of whether they buy your products or not. In addition, general health-related content marketing is much more accepted by regulators and social media platforms.
Infographics are a great runner-up after the video for engaging your audience. infographics work well with the type of content pharmaceutical companies create on topics like disease prevention and health.
Lots of pharmaceutical companies have largely dropped their social media content altogether. At a certain point, the regulations and planning start to outweigh the benefits of maintaining a presence. It’s important to hire a social media team experienced in pharmaceutical regulations in the companies you operate. One could also hire an agency with experience in pharma that has the time and resources to keep up with the changes while publishing engaging content to boot.
From the pharmaceutical company’s perspective, patient support helps deliver a better overall patient outcome and, as the industry increasingly pivots to more outcomes-based reimbursement models, improving the actual patient outcome will be a critical success factor.
For virtual interactions, the identification of DOLs (Digital Opinion Leaders) is even more relevant. Prior to the pandemic, less than 20% of KOLs had social media presence and only a few were considered DOLs for their online influence. Identifying and mapping the digital KOLs of each Therapeutic Area with respect to their positions and attitudes is crucial. Thereby, we will know how to proactively engage with these digital KOLs to understand and shape their perspectives and needs and develop specific strategic projects.
Medical Affairs can prepare video clips and podcasts with engaging KOLs that are interested in patient awareness topics and share through social media, also Instagram Live is an opportunity for engaging KOLs to share relevant information, ask & question meetings for publicity, forming health campaigns, public exercise training, and proper nutrition education. Interestingly, all these activities are part of the KOL development plan and cause medical affairs to engage more with KOLs or DOLs.
As a final point: Successful use of social media is defined by the value, relevance, and credibility of the content you convey.
Omid Salemi, PhD
Currently, Cardiovascular (Heart Failure) and Patient Blood Management (PBM) MSL Lead of the Barsian Darou (Vifor Pharma) in Iran, Tehran. I have worked as an MSL in Hematology, Gastroenterology, and women’s health, for Anemia, Iron Deficiency, and Anemia of Chronic disease therapeutic areas, also the collaboration of implementing International Iron Deficiency Day awareness in Iran.