This morning I was idly browsing three completely different blogs, all of which mentioned social media in some way; Jeremy Dent's digital media company blog Juice, Steve Woodruff's Impactiviti blog and another from Pharma Executive. Taken as a group, I realised that things have changed a lot in the last few years in terms of digital media and PR, although few are really exploiting the arena. Things are still evolving in the Pharma industry as a few players have only just started to experiment with the cool social media tools that are out there. There will be a lot of interesting battles with internal medical-legal-regulatory review teams to come though.
Back in 2000, when I was on the other side in big Pharma I can still remember the heated debates we went through prior to the Gleevec launch. They make me smile now, it was quite benign stuff compared to what we could actually do these days.
Imagine you have a new product in development for a particular cancer. You want to educate doctors, patients, health care professionals, the media, analysts etc about the disease and how your drug works, for example. In those days, iv chemotherapy was the rage and there was a certain scepticism that went with trying to develop a pill (a pill?!) for cancer that targeted the leukemia cells and left the normal cells mostly alone. No mention of the product name other than its development code, STI571. Sounds innocuous enough?
The regulatory and legal people made the usual requisite changes from British to American vernacular, nit picked about adding Philadelphia-positive with the CML everywhere etc. Clarified and toned down a few descriptions, which made them longer (not for Twitter, that's for sure). Fair enough, all acceptable suggestions and easy to execute. But the poor regulatory lady was slowing turning puce and finally could stand it no longer and snapped, accusing me of making claims, of promoting the agent off label etc etc. Finally, when she ran out of steam, I waited and politely pointed out that no off-label claims could be made as the drug wasn't available commercially and no generic name was even mentioned. And so it went on. Eventually, common sense prevailed and the scientific brochures got printed and the molecular biology stuff on the website went up along with similar information on other compounds in development. There's always safety in numbers, we reasoned.
Now, fast forward 9 years.
Today, that world would be very different. Instead of a static 2D web page with bland, anodyne medical and scientific information, suppose we look at several new tools that are available? A medical information specialist could bookmark key research and scientific papers pertaining to the disease and peer-reviewed publications in Del.icio.us or Google Reader, example. The RSS feed could then be shared on the products webpage and provide a useful source of technical information that would be in the readers interest should they need educational information. A YouTube video could be done showing the novel mechanism of action etc.
What would happen if an enlightened medical, new product or marketing team took the same RSS links and fed them into Twitterfeed and hence to a Twitter or Friendfeed account and aggregated numerous sources of interesting data? Would that be education or promotion? Or suppose there was also a blog with lovely widgets and chicklets saying Add Me to your RSS Reader or Email Me when a new post goes up or Share This with others via StumbleUpon, Digg, Mixx, Facebook etc.
But hang on a minute…
Would that be all covered under DTC or PhRMA guidelines? That tends to only cover television and newpaper ads, for example. If it's a drug in development, FDAMA guidelines wouldn't apply. How would DDMAC view things?
Suddenly, you're back in that tricky grey area I found myself in with no safety net and no rules to guide anyone either. The Pharma industry is one of the most highly regulated industries and rightly so where people's health is concerned. But FDA, OIG and DDMAC also need to change with the times and provide better, clearer and more comprehensive guidelines we can all work with.
Instead, I can see clash between the review team having kittens and an aggressive, bold marketer or commercialisation person with a pipe dream to provide cutting edge information that differentiates them from the competition, just as I was trying to do by pushing the window while staying within the outer boundaries. Paralysis and intense debate ensue. Same situation, same goals, same medium, but very different (and better) tools.
The irresistible force and the immovable object collide. Again.
Plus ça chânge, plus de la même chose.
What's your view on social media and pharma?