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Where does pharma stand with patient engagement?

Social media guidance, clarity of message and role of patient organisations revealed as concerns for UK industry

UK pharmaceutical companies have a number of concerns about the right way to handle patient engagement with clarity of message and the role of patient organisations both highlighted as issues to address at a recent seminar.

The Agenda 2012: Reform, Regulation and the Rise of Patient Power meeting also heard that social media and other digital communications channels continue to challenge the industry.

The seminar, hosted by PMGroup and supported by Informa Healthcare Communications, had moderators that included former global compliance policy director at AstraZeneca Paul Woods and PMGroup MD David Fisher. It focused on the how pharma's relationship with patients will continue to evolve over the next year.

Delegates said there was 'enormous potential' to reach patients through mediums such as Twitter, but that practical ways of doing so remained unclear.

The perceived “vagueness” of the current ABPI Code of Practice was seen to have the potential to have both a positive and negative effect on how the industry copes in the online environment. Although it allows companies the freedom to innovate it was also seen as not giving enough guidance to let the companies know where and how to begin.

The consensus from attendees was that decisions on what a company can do in a social media environment were up to individual interpretation. This can lead to problems when the people taking decisions don't fully understand the medium they are using.

One delegate spoke of how a digital strategy targeting woman aged 25 to 40 was led by men in their 40s and 50s who didn't have an understanding of how their audience were using online communications.

Another said they were from a generation that “don't do digital”.

There was specific reference to Bayer's breach of the Code earlier this year through its social media use. The company fell foul of the Code when it was judged to have used Twitter to promote prescription-only products to the general public.

In light of this it was suggested that the ABPI could take the lead, and suggest constructive ways of working in these mediums, or act as a sense checker for pharma companies.

The role of the patient in a company's wider marketing strategy was also discussed at the meeting, with delegates keen to see patient representatives assist from the start of the process.

The UK's proposed health and wellbeing boards was seen as a potential way for a way to develop this relationship.

The regional boards, part of ongoing NHS reforms, will act as a forum for local commissioners across the NHS, public health and social care, elected representatives, and representatives of HealthWatch to discuss how to work together.

Communicating in an understandable way to patient organisations was also a key emerging theme, according to attendees, with a need to produce clear, simple and balanced information that is useful for patients.

Joint working opportunities between companies and with the NHS was also discussed as something to be developed as an alternative to the industry using its own digital communications, with the limitations of what pharma companies can do when working with the NHS more explicit and easier to follow than guidance for social media.

ABPI social media taskforce

Speaking to PMLiVE in October, Stephen Whitehead discussed the organisation's role in helping its members communicate online.

He said: “The ABPI is looking at this - we have a taskforce looking at this issue in our comms function about we best engage and use social media.

“With social media – communications move much quicker, and it's not a one way broadcast communication, it's a dialogue and when you get into it you have to engage in that dialogue and resource that appropriately.”

Whitehead was still positive a way could be found to use social media appropriately within the boundaries of a mediated relationship through a patient's clinician.

“There is huge potential it can be used by patient organisations for things like compliance and for patients exchanging information. It can be useful from a clinician perspective as well, in terms of how you create virtual communities as a pharma company discussing one particular area.

“What we have to be saying is where can we underpin the healthcare professional and where does digital media fit that and where can we underpin the patient in compliance without being seen as crossing the line.”

13th December 2011

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