With the rapid advancement in communications technology, all major industries have changed the way they market their products and services to consumers. The pharmaceutical industry is no different as mobile devices make it easy for patients and physicians to access and consume detailed information about drugs, diseases and medical devices.

The digital side of healthcare as supported on mobile devices – abbreviated as mHealth is growing tremendously. Projected revenue of mHealth will reach over $26.5 billion by 2017.Mobile usage has expanded and wearable technology is growing exponentially. Consumers are now using mobile apps to research information regarding their health. This shift in consumer behavior will change the way pharmaceutical companies communicate their drug information and product message.

The pharmaceutical industry, commonly known for its traditional marketing and promotional activities such as sales representative visits to medical clinics, participation in medical congresses and symposia etc. is slowly realizing the impact and potential of social media.

A study shows that the average number of tweets by pharmaceutical companies has increased by 530% since 2013 and the major pharma players have increased their Twitter followers by nearly 300%. However, keeping in mind the potential this medium has to offer, the industry still has a long way to go. A study by IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics shows that out of the largest 50 drug makers in the world, approximately half engage in aggressive social media marketing. Only around 10 of these big pharma use the three primary social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

As compared to other major industries, pharma’s digital advertising lags behind. For example, the retail industry spends approximately $11.8 billion on digital advertising while the financial industry spends around $6.28 billion. Compared to this, the pharmaceutical industry’s digital ad spending in 2014 was only $1.4 billion. The pharmaceutical industry still delivers its marketing message via traditional channels 67% of the time and only 8% through emerging channels such as the social media, text messages, emails and so on.

A major hurdle to social media marketing by pharma has been the lack of proper guidelines and regulations from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with respect to its usage. It is important for companies to comply with FDA rules and regulations. Already there have been cases where big companies have been involved in violations related to unethical marketing practices and misleading and/or deceptive advertising messages. Surprisingly, even today the FDA has found more violations with traditional media as compared to digital media when it comes to the pharmaceutical industry. A study reveals that from 2008-2012, 60% of FDA reported violations were related to traditional media. 75% of letters of warning also involved cases of traditional media as compared to 25% for digital violations.

While the FDA is very particular about its requirements with respect to traditional marketing, it still has to provide detailed guidance on social media marketing. Only the very basic requirements have been communicated to pharmaceutical companies. For example, when posting about a particular drug or medical device, the FDA requires that readers be provided with a hyperlink that would allow them to read the complete profile of the drug or device in question. Similarly, it is important to use both the chemical and trade name of the drug in all social media postings. However, the FDA provides very little guidance for a platform that holds huge potential. The FDA regulation on Social Media was published in 2014 and things have moved rapidly on this platform, but the FDA has not yet updated its rules and regulations accordingly. In addition, there have been concerns with respect to the rapid growth of mobile gadgets and wearables and how pharmaceutical companies may find it difficult to keep up with this fast pace. However, this just highlights the need for pharmaceutical companies to develop a strong digital pharma ecosystem so that they can keep up with the latest digital trends.

Despite the hurdles, social media is an extremely effective channel for pharmaceutical and medical device companies to market, educate, listen and connect with their target market which could include patients, physicians and customers. In a survey conducted with physicians, it was found that 65% of them would be interested in engaging with pharmaceutical companies over social media, as it would provide them greater visibility into clinical data. Specifically, physicians are interested in obtaining general clinical information and data related to clinical trials, side effect profile of drugs, any new studies and new products under development, information about future clinical studies and comparative data between different classes of drugs and formulations. Since prescriptions from physicians are greatly dependent on efficacy and safety data, social media provides a tremendous opportunity. Information can be provided to physicians in order for them to make important and informative clinical decisions with respect to drug utilization and prescription.

Some key benefits that can be derived through social media interaction include a better understanding of unmet patient needs, identification of patient segments, staying abreast of adherence challenges and most importantly pharmacovigilance through which companies can closely monitor the performance of a newly launched drug as well as detect possible side effects related to its use. Therefore, as long as they act responsibly and within the basic FDA regulations, this is how the pharmaceutical industry can benefit from social media:

Marketing: Social media is an excellent platform to share information about new drugs and devices as well as talk about the key features, benefits and side effect profile of different therapies. Companies can gain customer confidence by sharing key results from major clinical trials. Press releases can be widely distributed through the social media and any community and/or charity events sponsored by pharmaceutical companies can also be promoted via this platform.

Education: Social media is an ideal channel to educate patients and customers about various disease segments, available therapies and side effect profiles. Today’s patient is thirsty for information and companies can fulfill their thirst by providing disease-specific educational information to consumers. It is important to ensure that the educational material is not biased because the ultimate goal is to gain your customer’s confidence and to help them understand different disease areas and treatment options. In today’s age of the informed patient, patient education has taken a leading position. Pharmaceutical companies now need to put out detailed content that the patient can trust as well as satisfy their need for product knowledge. Social media can prove to be a very effective tool in empowering patients with the right information so they can help play an active role in decisions related to their health and quality of care.

Connecting with Patients: Pharmaceutical companies can create patient support groups and communities to interact and connect with patients. The biggest advantage of social media is that it offers a two-way conversation. Not only can pharma companies communicate their message but they can also “socially listen” to what patients want through their feedback, personal stories and patient insights. This can help the industry further refine and streamline its processes and procedures and identify gaps which they can fulfill.

Connecting with Physicians and Customers: Twitter chats with physicians and customers are becoming increasingly common within the pharma industry. Not only is Twitter efficient and convenient, it also has the potential to involve a large number of participants from different parts of the world and with different levels of expertise. This holds great potential in initiating interesting and informative discussions about new research and medical approaches.

Clinical Trials: Enrolling participants in clinical trials has traditionally been a difficult and expensive task. Social media can help in this regard by bolstering enrollment and by helping study researchers achieve their enrollment goals without wasting time and money.

Overall, it is evident that social media holds tremendous potential as a marketing channel for the pharmaceutical industry. No doubt the industry has seen its share of resistance toward the digital shift but with technology moving so fast, it is evident that if pharma wants to sustain its growth, it will have to keep up with the digital age. FDA regulations may be unclear and the path may seem daunting for companies that have been working on the traditional model for decades. Yet, there is no doubt a social media strategy can be quite effective and can help companies further improve their performance. In the years to come, the pharmaceutical industry can utilize the various social media platforms to provide new, accurate and reliable content and information to physicians, patients and customers.