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Advantages and Challenges of Using Social Media for Pharma R&D

Posted on July 7th, 2017 by in Pharma R&D

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Social media is a force to be reckoned with in modern society. Over the last decade, it has changed the way we interact with friends and family, consumes news and entertainment, and do business.

While companies across sectors have largely embraced the use of social media for everything from marketing to data gathering, the pharmaceutical industry has been shy about its involvement in this key aspect of the digital revolution. But could avoiding social media be a major competitive disadvantage?

In an interview with Forbes, Dr. Kevin Campbell shared 6 Ways Pharma May Use Social Media, one of which he described simply as listening. “Social listening can be very powerful. Pharma can identify unmet needs to innovate and figure out where R&D dollars should go,” he explained. “By listening, an individual company can get an idea of what types of programming is already present in the social space—and how to better innovate and do something new. In addition, social listening can allow a company to learn from the mistakes of competitors.”

Essentially what this means is that social media provides pharmaceutical companies with another method of gathering useful knowledge. But unlike other vital information sources, such as scientific literature or databases, social media is more personal and less filtered. There is the opportunity to see what patients and physicians alike are saying that their needs are. And obviously there is also the opportunity to follow other companies to discover what products they are making and approaches they are taking—and how the public is responding to those choices. For an R&D-focused player in the pharma industry not to explore this landscape is almost like intentionally staying isolated in the dark.

Insights gathered from social media have not only the potential to provide inspiration and direction for new product development but also drug repurposing. “Social media could be a new frontier for drug development. If pharma companies could gather real-world data from prescribers, they might find new uses for existing drugs,” wrote Tracy Staton in FiercePharma, adding that “Through physician postings online, drug makers might identify other unintended benefits of their meds.”

But she also noted Big Pharma’s reticence to attempt this, suggesting that their biggest fear might be unintended consequences: “Set up a networking site to find unanticipated benefits, and you might come up with unexpected safety problems instead. Very public safety problems, given that the reports would be online and out in the open. And such unverified safety problems could spook patients. Such is the double-edged sword of social media–it’s a means of spreading both good and bad news. And like everything else online, it can’t be tightly controlled.”

Concerns about staying compliant with evolving FDA regulations have also contributed to pharma industry wariness of social media. But in an Eye on FDA blog post last year, Mark Senak tried to ease those fears by demonstrating how few social media-related violations have been committed in recent years. Looking specifically at warning letters issued by the FDA’s Office of Prescription Drug Promotion, he found only a small number involving social media communications.

While it is easy to see the benefits that using social media can offer innovation-hungry pharma companies, greater online engagement also stands to help customers. In a PharmaExec.com article, Dawn Lacallade argued that, in a time when patients increasingly turn to social media for healthcare research, and when a significant amount of that information is incorrect or comes from disreputable sources, companies actually have an obligation to fill the “void” with accurate, high-quality information. And in doing so, they are likely to create greater trust between themselves and the patients they want to serve.

Pharmaceutical firms interested in boosting their R&D by adopting or beefing up their social media presence should still operate with care, developing clear policies and strategies in advance that take FDA regulations into account. But with social media platforms being utilized by literally billions of people around the world, pharma can’t afford to be anti-social.


Social media adds to an ever growing mountain of literature. Watch the video to find out if you have the tools you need.

All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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