The Twitter Bug: Will Pharma Catch It?

The Twitter Bug: Will Pharma Catch It?
August 24, 2010 by Orr Fellowship
Tweets, blogs, Facebook followers, and bulletin boards.  As you well know, for today’s high growth start-ups, social media has taken the industry by storm.  Today’s consumers are all about transparency, and what better way to keep up on the hottest products than by reading those addicting 140 character news-bites.  But in my short time at BioConvergence LLC, I have noticed one thing about healthcare companies both young and old – the tweets have gone silent.

In an industry that puts elaborate chemicals or go-go-gadget devices into real people, you would think that consumers would be especially interested in real-time, transparent information, right?  The fact is, however, you aren’t going to get these updates by checking your iPhone tweet feed, especially when it comes to pharmaceuticals.  A recent article in the Journal of Pharmacy and Therapeutics is just one of many reports, blogs, and conversations flooding the pharma industry about how to deal with social media, both for and against, in what is notoriously a slow-to-catch-up industry.

What’s the big deal, you ask?  First, lets take a quick look at the unique, HIGHLY regulated environment drug companies live in.  For those unfamiliar with the pharma industry, I am sure you are at least aware that all products on the market must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration before they can be sold.  Once a product is approved, however, drug companies are still required to abide by numerous federal regulations in order for their products to stay in the hands of consumers.  This is pretty important considering it takes on average a wallet busting $1 billion investment to get a drug product from early-phase development to a pharmacy near you.

Social media content is all user based – that’s why it’s social!  This same user content, however, is why pharma companies are vaccinating themselves from the twitter bug.  According to the FDA, drug companies are supposed to report any ‘adverse events’ associated with their marketed products.  For example, if taking a headache pill makes your skin turn green (a Shrek-like adverse event), the FDA wants to know about it so they can hold the company responsible to fix the problem.  If a social media user posts a comment about a bad result or side effect associated with a drug, pharma companies fear this could be interpreted as an adverse event that they must go out and actively solve.  This can cause product holds from patients in need, revenue losses, and the list goes on.

But who ultimately is responsible for dealing with these ‘adverse event’ posts?  Should they even be considered valid problems?  Is it the drug company’s responsibility to seek out and investigate these claims?  Will doing so increase the cost of drug products even more?

Today these questions and more have been heard on this long overdue debate, as the FDA is expected to release a set of highly anticipated social media usage guidelines by the end of 2010.  For many high-growth Indianapolis companies in the biomedical realm, a watchful eye is being kept to see if they too can join in on the phenomena that is social media.  In the meantime, pharma will continue to stay on the outside looking in, waiting to see if they will soon be able to start tweeting with the best of them.

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