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Smart Thinking blog

Insights and expert advice on the key issues facing today’s pharma marketer

With knowledge and position comes responsibility

Why we always need to think before we post

With most of our social interactions now exclusively online, it is a pertinent time to consider our responsibilities as healthcare communications and marketing professionals when communicating online and specifically through social media.

I am not medically qualified, nor do I profess to be somebody who should be consulted on such matters. Therefore, when asked for advice by friends and family, all I can ever do is refer them to credible sources of information and suggest they speak to a healthcare professional. This is why, when working in healthcare communications or marketing, it is vital we remember this word – professionals – and the responsibilities that confers. Many of us may not be medically qualified, but we do have strong health knowledge and, by the nature of our work, we hold positions that others see as health-related. It is therefore essential we recognise that as professionals we need to show responsibility in how and what we communicate about health in our private as well as working lives, particularly on social media.

Put simply, we need to think before we post.

Proceed with caution

Social media is both a powerful and potentially dangerous environment. It can deliver immense good; the amazing community responses you see via social media, for those in genuine need, demonstrates that perfectly. However, there are many examples where an ill-advised post has irreconcilably damaged an individual’s or organisation’s reputation. In healthcare, those same actions could have consequences not only detrimental to the reputation of the person or company who posts, but even the health or safety of many others. If that sounds over the top, just think about the variations in measles vaccination levels across Europe and the increasing numbers of associated hospitalisations. This is mainly occurring because of misinformation about the risks of vaccination, much of it disseminated via social media channels.

Challenge the bad

Fake health news and non-scientific quackery is rife on social media. Whether it has been placed there maliciously or through ignorance, it has the potential to put people’s health at risk. The question we have to ask ourselves as a sector is as responsible professionals should we be proactively calling out this misinformation? This is something we could be doing in association with medical journalists. Jane Symons, Vice Chair of the Medical Journalists’ Association agreed when she said: “It has never been more important to use social media to amplify good journalism and solid science. With COVID-19, we face an even greater challenge and an even greater need for accurate, evidence-based messages on social media. Journalists and healthcare communicators can make a huge difference by creating, sharing and ‘liking’ posts which provide the reliable information and support that will get us through this. Let’s work together to do it.”

Social media guidance

Of course, immense care is also needed in what we do and say about anything health-related to your own company or clients on social media due to regulatory and compliance requirements. In the UK, with its comprehensive code of practice, 2019 saw a wide range of upheld code cases covering different social media platforms. All had the same outcome regardless of the post being placed, forwarded, shared or even just liked. In response the HCA recently launched a template Social Media Guidance to help members inform their employees and business partners of their responsibilities when using social media inside or outside of work. Pharmaceutical companies are held accountable for the actions of their employees and their suppliers. Similarly, the UK affiliate is held accountable for the actions of any UK-based element as well as any non-UK head office, so it is relevant for many of us. The guidance reminds us that social media is considered a ‘push platform’, and as such, information about prescription-only medicines is inadvisable. This includes press releases, clinical trial reports or published news articles. Placing content about medical conditions is acceptable on social media if it does not include any medicine names, but it still requires certification by the medical signatory. This basically means if you can’t guarantee something has been certified, don’t place, like or share it on social media.

As healthcare communications and marketing professionals we have to recognise our responsibilities when using social media to discuss health inside and outside work, not just due to codes of practice, but also due to our innate ability to influence. However, if we get it right and use this media for good, we can help make a significant difference to the health and lives of many people.

Mike Dixon is CEO of the Healthcare Communications Association (HCA) and a communications consultant

Mike Dixon is CEO of the Healthcare Communications Association (HCA) and a communications consultant

5th June 2020


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