As healthcare communicators, we have been staring at, arguing about, and advocating for the elephant in the room for years now: the intersection of health education, social, and mobile media. The convergence has been slowly creeping forward, and the rationale for Pharma to engage patients and healthcare professionals online has never been stronger.
New apps, social platforms and websites spring up every day, changing the nature of healthcare in the U.S. by putting more knowledge and power in the hands of the patient. Pharma companies are creating mobile apps to help patients track their symptoms, research diseases and medications, and manage their care. Sites like HealthGrades.com and Vitals.com help patients make informed choices about their healthcare professionals. Cleveland Clinic hosts regular web chats with physicians for the public. A recent survey found that 59% of American adults searched online for health information last year, and from the looks of it, it’s only full speed ahead from here.
Government regulators and professional medical associations have recognized that social media is here to stay. Though the FDA draft guidance issued in December 2011 only addressed off-label promotion, the FTC recently updated its guidelines on digital disclosures, helping to ensure online promotional communications are transparent for consumers. Most recently, the American College of Physicians issued a position statement on best practices for physicians to maintain professional interactions with their patients online. Intended to maintain trust in the profession, uphold confidentiality laws, preserve professional distance, and manage their online reputations, much of the advice is common sense to PR pros. But, they are groundbreaking in one aspect: regulators and self-regulators are on board.
As healthcare PR professionals, we are always challenged to develop meaningful educational programs for health consumers that address their needs, including the ways they access information. With their growing reliance on mobile apps and social and digital media, MMC has worked to develop innovative programs that are also regulatory compliant. Here’s how:
- We start small: Particularly in this environment of unclear FDA guidance, pharmaceutical companies are conservative. Companies that post relevant, unbranded content can build a controlled online presence and establish themselves as an expert resource that health consumers will want to turn to when they evolve to online engagements.
- We partner early and often with regulatory and legal colleagues: Collaborating with regulatory and legal early in the process so that they understand your goals ensures your programs will meet both marketing and regulatory needs. Partnering throughout the process will grow comfort with your programs and help ensure a smooth internal approval process.
- We think long-term: You can take small steps to manage a company or brand’s online reputation. Create or update the company’s LinkedIn profile, Wikipedia page, and website. Check Facebook to see if a lack of corporate presence has resulted in the company having an “Organization page” – and update it.
- We listen: If your client is not ready to create or share content, remind them that the conversation is happening whether they’re taking part or not. Start listening online, which can not only guide a future strategy, but also inform patient insights. Consider developing social media guidelines so that you will be able to help the company understand how two-way engagement will be implemented.
- We counsel: Ready or not, online engagement will eventually become a reality for every healthcare company that markets to consumers. So make sure you stay current with evolving guidelines, regulations and practices. And, always be ready to suggest how changes in online engagement can benefit your client, your brand or your company.