A recent survey by the management-consulting firm Accenture shows that US consumers seeking medical advice turn to medical websites, social-media sites, online communities, and informational websites in far greater numbers than they turn to the websites of pharmaceutical companies. The survey results underscore an important question for pharmaceutical companies: namely, how to use new media more actively in their own communication while ensuring the overall quality of online information for pharmaceuticals.
The Accenture survey showed that of 68% of respondents that went online for health information, only about one in ten (11%) regularly turn to a pharmaceutical company’s website to seek information about an illness or medical condition; 92% go to other online resources. The study was based on Accenture’s online survey of 852 adult consumers in the United States between Aug. 30 and Sept. 3, 2010.
So what is a pharmaceutical company to do? “While pharmaceutical companies are methodical in manufacturing their products, there is a clear disconnect in how they communicate with patients,” said Tom Schwenger, global managing director for Accenture’s Life-Sciences Sales and Marketing Practice, in a company press release. Accenture says that pharmaceutical companies must not only provide the right information, but strategically upgrade their websites to create dynamic, interactive experiences; demonstrate a better understanding of patients’ needs; provide holistic solutions; and better reinforce their brand identities in a two-way dialogue.
Although using new media to execute a business strategy more effectively and improve customer relations is important, the larger concern facing the pharmaceutical industry, regulators, and the public at large is the overreliance of consumers on online resources that may not provide accurate medical information. Last year, the US Food and Drug Administration held public hearings to gain input from the public and other stakeholders as part of the agency’s evaluation of how the statutory provisions, regulations, and policies concerning advertising and promotional labeling should be applied to product-related information on the Internet and newer media technologies.
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) weighed in on this debate by participating in those public meetings. Earlier this year, PhRMA detailed its proposal for regulation and standards for communication of online medical-product information. The proposal included three major recommendations, as outlined in a PhRMA’s March 9, 2010 press statement: the adoption of a universal symbol to indicate a direct link to FDA-regulated risk information online, the inclusion of introductory drug-warning information in sponsored search results and similar media with direct links to risk–benefit information, and the permission for drug companies to microblog newsworthy regulatory and scientific events for medical products.
It is to everyone’s advantage that online communication effectively provide medical information, including information about pharmaceuticals. Having the appropriate regulatory framework for reducing the spread of inaccurate information while facilitating its responsible dissemination is a difficult but important goal that pharmaceutical companies, regulatory authorities, consumers, and other stakeholders should seek to collectively meet. It will be important to watch how the PhRMA proposal and other suggestions will shape that course.