Although social media use in healthcare continues to grow, a new study has found that about half of the top 50 pharmaceutical companies are not actively engaging with patients through social media and the same amount of companies are not using social media effectively.  More specifically, as drug makers experiment with social media to engage consumers, they are reluctant to use these tools to bolster their efforts in designing and developing clinical trials.

According to the study, “Engaging Patients Through Social Media” by the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, while only one in 10 clinical trials run by drug makers have recruited participants through social media channels, most have yet to try it. Concerns range from protecting patient privacy to equally sticky issues such as patients who publicly distort event experiences or introduce research bias by sharing treatment information with others.

Of the top 50 pharmaceutical companies, the report found that 23 used at least one social media platform to connect with patients, and just 10 used all three platforms. Twitter was the most-used channel (22 companies), followed by YouTube (17 companies), and Facebook (15 companies).

“Like it or not, social media communities as a forum for interaction and engagement are here to stay,” Ken Getz, the director of sponsored research programs at the Tufts University Center for the Study of Drug Development, told The Wall Street Journal. “And patient centricity is about engaging patients. But there is a decidedly low level of adoption today when it comes to using social media in clinical research…Its use is really quite minimal. Most companies have yet to develop a set of core policies and procedures.”

In addition, none of the companies report using social media to design clinical trial protocols. According to Getz, of the 20 companies that participated in the survey, only 13 provided data about their use of social media in trials. The lack of clear guidelines from regulatory agencies may be discouraging pharmaceutical companies from broadening their use of social media to interact with patients. To date, the FDA has only published draft guidance on the topic and is currently collecting feedback on the recommendations. As a result, only one in five companies that use social media directly interacts with patients for various purposes, according to Tufts. Most outsource patient engagement to third parties or use what was described as more passive approaches, such as banner ads on social media sites.

According to Tufts, drug makers are making increasing use of social media for patient recruitment – an estimated 11 percent of all trials now do. Of the companies queried, nine of 14 say they plan to increase adoption to recruit in the U.S. and five of 12 expect to do so in Western Europe. More specifically, 12 of the 13 companies with quantifiable data reported using social media to track the number of leads generated for trial participants and 10 of those 13 said they tracked the number of patients screened, while eight companies tracked the rate at which participants were randomly placed in trials.

As health care continues to evolve, the report suggests that expanding the use of social media in patient care will become increasingly important and will require a combined effort from regulatory agencies, pharmaceutical companies, and healthcare professionals.  

The report states, “Advancing social media to center stage in health care and the use of medicines will require clarity from regulators, a more proactive stance by pharmaceutical manufacturers to engage with patients, and utilization of available tools to ensure patients receive value from their social media interactions.”


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