Pharmaceutical Companies and Social Media

Posted in Blog General Health Health guidelines History of medicine

by Wendy Warner, MD, ABIHM

At a time when the lines between education and advertising are becoming increasingly blurred, in steps the brave new world of social media.  Facebook, the major player in social media, represents essentially a large country in terms of those involved in its communications on a daily (hourly!) basis.  Using this medium, folks can share information, “get the word out” and connect on many levels.  Businesses are also hopping on board, using the forum for easy advertising.

Up until recently, Facebook had a special policy for pharmaceutical companies, allowing them to block comments on open Wall pages, a policy not available to others using Facebook.  (Anyone can remove a comment once it’s posted, but the policy allowed comments to be blocked from the outset).  As reported in the Washington Post on 8/13/11, that special right has been rescinded as of Monday, 8/15/11.

Facebook executives state that this decision was made in an effort to open up the lines of communication and promote better dialogue.  For the pharmaceutical companies, the issue is around possible posting of adverse events, which is reportable to the FDA.  Companies stated that removing their ability to block comments would require nearly constant surveillance of their site in order to maintain compliance with FDA regulations.  Although this is an understandable concern, is it really what is going on?  Is their concern more about “bad press” on a Facebook page that they currently use to promote their company and its products?  What would happen if someone started questioning information that they currently list as “education”?

If you go to some Facebook pages for these companies, such as the one for Pfizer (which currently has over 31,ooo “likes”), there is now a long explanation of why some postings might need to be removed.  Most of the reasons listed involve things like slander, vulgarity and the like, though they prominently mention the issue around “regulations” regarding products and side effects.  Most pharmaceutical companies state that the bulk of their Facebook pages already allowed open comments, since the pages didn’t focus on specific drugs.

I’ve always had an issue with direct advertising of pharmaceuticals to the public.  I’m old enough to remember when this wasn’t allowed.  Physicians were expected to be educated about new advances and mention them to their patients as appropriate.  If a company advertises directly to the public, how can a lay person take that information and put it into the appropriate context of their own health?  Sometimes they can, sometimes they can’t.  It’s the typical issue of the rosy ad filled with hope, that ends in that rapid, low voice quickly explaining all the reasons you might not want to take this drug.

So if Facebook is another way for a business to get the word out and do some cheap advertising, how can one figure out what comments are education and what comments are just ads?  If outside voices can now be added, will this help enlighten us, or will it simply mean the companies will have to appoint some already-overworked employee to monitor and remove anything that could even vaguely be considered inflammatory?  If you look at the Pfizer page, pretty much any comment anyone might want to make could potentially fit into a category of ‘why we might need to remove your comment’.  If it takes more work for the company, will this add to their overhead and ultimately add to the already ridiculous cost of drugs?

I think an educated patient is a good idea, and an opportunity to share knowledge is a good thing.  I’m just not sure whether blocking all comments from the outset, which sounds bad, is better or worse than making a company physically remove them.  Almost feels even more adversarial to me….

The views expressed in the ABIHM Blog are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of the ABIHM or its Directors.

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