ABPI Digital Update: Insider Reactions

Pharma marketers in the UK still feel their hands are tied when it comes to digital communications, despite recently updated guidance from the ABPI designed to clarify best practices. Two thirds of the front-line staff Weber Shandwick spoke to in an informal survey said the ABPI’s guidance has not clarified the dos and don’ts of social media in consumer-facing communications activities. What’s more, their feedback was that the ABPI and MHRA are failing to keep pace with developments in the digital space – and that this could ultimately put patients at risk from misinformation that goes unchallenged.

The regulator published its long-awaited digital update in June but there didn’t seem to be much open reaction at the time. We were fascinated to see what industry insiders made of the detail so ran a small straw poll of our own. The consensus among respondents was that lack of clarity is making it much harder for brand teams to secure funding for digital projects. Business sponsors, we’re told, are not committing to long term funding because of the uncertainty and this is creating a vicious cycle.

Disappointment – and danger

It’s no secret that health companies have been looking for guidance around the use of social media in a regulated communications environment. There’s a clear sense of disappointment from the marketers we spoke to that the ABPI’s updated guidance not only misses the mark but also misses an opportunity to redress the balance of inaccurate health information that exists online. It seems budget holders are finding it easier to say ‘no’ outright to digital, rather than focusing on what can be done, and patients will ultimately be the losers if the regulator doesn’t keep pace with technology.

There’s a vast amount of health-related information online and much will help rather than harm. But, just as forums and social networks can make everyone a journalist, so they empower everyone to offer a medical opinion, potentially to a large audience. Trouble is that internet users don’t necessarily have years of impartial scientific and evidence-based knowledge – and you certainly wouldn’t trust a GP who didn’t. It’s open season for anecdotal health information unless pharma (along with government and other relevant bodies) is prepared to enter online conversations in order to present reliable scientific facts. This is the integrity that the regulations are striving to protect.

Our survey respondents felt this situation would only become worse unless the regulator provided more guidance. I find GSK’s corporate approach interesting – they are trying to counter out-of-date or non-accurate third-party information by presenting factual, branded drug details via the health.gsk site By focussing on what can be done, rather than always worrying about what can’t, a company moves forward. There’s plenty of innovation. Pfizer’s online GP surgery is an example of how pharma is trying to embrace interactivity. Meanwhile, Amgen has 3D video to bring complex science to life in a new and engaging way; Genzyme uses augmented reality to demonstrate how calcium can build up in your heart. These are all innovative examples of digital storytelling and show it is possible to deploy the cutting-edge technologies more familiar from the FMCG space while still respecting the regulatory framework.

The digital dilemma

So what do pharma marketers want from the regulator—a list of everything they can and cannot do? I suspect there’s no simple one-size-fits-all answer here. It may be that extensive commentary on positive campaign elements would help mark the boundaries. However, rather than focus purely on the regulator our respondents said there needs to be internal change within their own organisations. Some pharma firms are trying to shape the broader discussion at corporate level and my feeling is this approach will then lead to developments at brand level. For example, Boehringer has published its Twitter strategy and contributes to blogger podcasts – actively working to be part of online discussion around innovation in digital pharma, and to be transparent about the challenges. Our survey has revealed that lack of business buy-in is not helping lower the barrier, so once the wider business sees the value of digital there will likely be greater willingness to try new things.

Innovation, along with genuine community interaction, will ultimately help pharmaceutical firms strengthen their reputations. Brand utility and patient support can show how pharma can be a genuine partner in the health of the general public. Innovative products, coupled with smart communications campaigns, help tell this story. The journey needs to be a step-by-step progression for each business. However, the real challenge is not the regulation but rather that ‘doing digital’ is a way to implement a commercial goal and not a strategy in itself.

Key Considerations for Digital Communications in Healthcare

  • Involve legal, regulatory and medical teams from day one in a collaborative experience which helps generates a positive outcome as all stakeholders understand the rationale behind an initiative.
  • Document project objectives, moderation and monitoring plans, review schedules, reporting procedures and training compliance in line with the latest ABPI oversight best practices.
  • Much online buzz around healthcare is originally inspired by news, so activate a strong digital news content programme and distribute through a dedicated website that is optimised for sharing.
  • Address topics of patient discussion and tap into trends by creating services like mobile apps which have a practical and functional use – the community will respond positively if you are create something that meets its needs rather than an organisation’s perceived marketing needs.
  • Be transparent with your audience, explaining why the regulatory and other issues you face make it harder to be interactive.

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