Blog June 26, 2023

Social Media Within the Healthcare Sector

The use of social media in medicine and pharma is rising.

Social media has become a ubiquitous communications channel for many industries, especially within the education, real estate, and retail sectors, as well as entertainment, food, and fashion marketing. According to research by communications firm Edelman, 92% of the public say that they trust social media, word of mouth, and recommendations from friends and family above other information sources, especially advertising. Moreover, 82% say that they trust companies more if they are involved in social media. This communication channel has been particularly effective for raising public awareness about products, issues, and public concerns, combatting misinformation, promoting engagement, and communicating important information during a crisis. In particular, research studies from organizations including the Pew Media Research Center have revealed that social media has become the most common news source among those under age 29 and 54% of Americans get their news from it “sometimes” or “often.”

Within healthcare, physicians and other healthcare providers (HCPs) have increasingly embraced social media to raise health awareness and combat misinformation among external audiences, as well as to share information and collaborate with other HCPs. A recent survey by digital communication agencies Sermo and Live World found that 57% of physicians surveyed admitted to changing their initial perceptions of a drug thanks to information gained through social media, showing its power to inform clinical and treatment decisions to some degree. General social media platforms, such as private groups on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, are valued by HCPs as news sources and ways of following other doctors and influencers. However, the most used and trusted platform choices are the closed professional networking communities, Doximity and Sermo, whose participation is limited to medical professionals. Over 80% of U.S. physicians and over 50% of nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants are members of Doximity, which offers curated news, telehealth tools, and opportunities for case collaboration. Sermo, whose membership consists of licensed physicians in the United States and 149 other countries, further offers its members an international database of physician drug reviews, third-party educational content and continuing medical education courses, and a global support team.

In contrast, most pharma and biotech companies have embraced social media strategies somewhat more slowly. With the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and European Medicines Agency encouraging greater patient centricity in drug development and marketing, increasing that focus has become the primary goal of social media for biotech and pharmaceutical companies. Social media offers an efficient way to reach targeted audiences, recruit potential clinical trial participants, and educate and build communities of patients and healthcare practitioners. It also offers companies a way to gather unfiltered, real-world evidence about patient experience with healthcare practices and new therapies. However, effectively gathering such data is complicated by standardization challenges (resulting from patient use of idioms, non-standard spellings, text speak, and emojis), as well as privacy issues and government restrictions on data sharing.  Whereas the former is a challenge that may be soon rectified by Natural Language Processing/Artificial Intelligence advances, the later present significant structural limitations to wider usage.

According to a report by Ogilvy Health, social media programs currently in place at Bristol Myers Squibb, Boehringer Ingelheim, and Roche are the industry’s most “mature.” The report assessed maturity based on how the companies used social media to nurture and engage with communities, giving each a score that reflected their social experience, content strategy, influence, community and other characteristics. Seven other biotech and pharma companies included in the survey scored substantially lower. Gilead scored the lowest overall rating, largely due to scoring zero on social community and a comparatively low ranking on corporate identity (although the company scored third highest in the social experience and design category). Despite Ogilvy’s findings about biopharma’s mixed use of social media and its impact, the research from Sermo and Live World found that 90% of the pharma companies participating in their survey do allocate at least a limited portion of their marketing budget specifically to social media, with half of those surveyed saying their social media spend will be higher this year from what it was in 2022.

How is pharma’s social media engagement with HCPs anticipated to evolve as online behaviors shift, especially as a growing number of HCPs are Gen Z-ers with ever-greater use and facility with social media? What impacts will the changing regulatory landscape regarding privacy, data sharing and promotion have on the social media practices within the healthcare sector? We’ll be watching.