The importance of the pharmaceutical industry as a global sector is undeniable. In 2014, pharmaceutical sales reached a milestone of USD 1 trillion. Apart from discovering and developing innovative healthcare solutions, pharmaceutical companies also need to market and promote their products to remain profitable. It is worth mentioning that the sales and distribution of pharmaceutical products is highly regulated. This is primarily due to concerns related to off-label promotion, substance abuse, medical fraud and the launch of products to cater to the selfish interests of pharmaceutical businesses alone, and many others. The existence of regional regulatory authorities is therefore essential to control the activities of this industry. In the US the marketing of prescription drugs is regulated under the federal Prescription Drug Marketing Act of 1987.
Traditionally, the advertisement of new medical products was primarily done through healthcare journals and conventional media routes. However, advertising these products to the general public was largely prohibited in various countries across the globe. At this time, pharmaceutical companies employed the services of direct sales representatives to market their products to doctors and other healthcare professionals. Influential players in the industry are also known to employ the services of lobbyists to influence politicians as well. The legalization of direct-to-consumer marketing in the major countries across the globe led pharmaceutical companies to leverage different broadcasting forums to market their products and communicate directly with consumers.
Social media has emerged as an effective way to publicize a product. In this fast paced generation where information is available freely, drug / therapy developers are known to use multiple online resources to market their product(s). An article published by Ogilvy Healthworld, entitled Connecting the dots: Which Pharma Companies are Succeeding in the Social Media Space, provides a list of the leading pharmaceutical companies that are employing the use of social media for marketing their products and / or services. Some of the highlights from the report are listed below:
The average number of tweets by pharma players have gone up by 530% since 2013 and followers of pharmaceutical companies have increased by nearly 300% during the same period.
However, the companies that have the largest online communities are not necessarily the most effective at engaging and maintaining the interest of their followers.
Followers have been shown to reward companies that post frequent updates on social media and manage to engage the attention of those who follow these posts. In other words, the players that keep their networks fresh with regular updates witness the highest interaction from their respective communities.
Despite the substantial degree of transparency that internet based advertising has to offer, certain concerns related to the general well-being of consumers and the misuse of advertisements still persist. As more and more pharmaceutical companies begin to use social media as a platform to propagate their marketing campaigns, disease mongering (exploiting the fear of sickness to promote the sale of medical products) has emerged as a major point of concern. Additionally, advertisers generally tend to focus on the positive aspects of a product in their promotional content. Due to this practice, the drawbacks of certain medications remain unnoticed until a number of serious adverse events have taken place. Therefore, similar to how medical advertising has been regulated for other broadcasting platforms, developing an appropriate social media policy to regulate pharmaceutical marketing online has become necessary.
In this regard, the FDA has laid down a number of guidelines that companies are expected to follow while making use of social networking sites. The organization / individual publishing the content is to be held solely responsible for it. If a pharmaceutical company is found to have violated these guidelines, it is liable to suffer the consequences often resulting in defamation, breach of confidence, breach of privacy, copyright infringement, improper use of public electronics communication network, off-label promotion and failing to report adverse events. Hence, advertisers need to consider these risks prior to posting content online, because once the content is posted, it cannot be altered. As per PMCPA guidelines (UK) even if the content is removed quickly from the website, the publisher is still likely to be held responsible for it. Hence, it is mandatory for a company to have a well-established social media policy in place and train their online sales representatives to adhere to this policy to avoid any violations.
A major proportion of pharmaceutical companies have already established their presence online through various social networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others. The use of online platforms offer a number of advantages, including (but not limited to) the ability to reach a wider audience, ensure transparency of information and facilitate regulatory supervision.