Advocates and adversaries

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I got a golden ticket! Or rather, my senior editor Matthew Arnold did.

The FDA's announcement that it would be finally unlocking its gates to discuss, or rather hear about, internet drug promotion and social media was met with unprecedented excitement and an almighty scramble, first, for speaker slots and, second, for seats. Any seat. And by the time the lucky 300 were bound for DC, the buzz in the industry had reached fever pitch.

Playing the part of Wonka was DDMAC director Thomas Abrams. But the kingdom to which he had the keys was, predictably, neither magical nor colorful. Instead, the fortunate few were escorted beyond a deserted mall to a dark, underground cave and stripped of all communications and caffeination privileges; no wi-fi, no bars, no lattes. The irony of holding a meeting about social media and digital communications in such an environment was not lost on the attendees.

Meanwhile, the rest of the pharma marketing world—and more than a few mainstream-ish media folks—turned to the comfort of the free live web streaming, almost as if two days and 77 presentations might solve all of their marketing problems and change their lives for the better.

Just five days after the hearings, Shwen Gwee, corporate communications at Vertex Pharmaceuticals and founder of the Social Pharmer Network, asked agency delegates at the Healthcare Communications Leadership Forum in New York: “How many of you feel your clients pulled back [on social media] before the hearings to see what came out of it?” Many hands were raised.

At the same forum, Bruce Grant, SVP, business strategy at Digitas Health, and a presenter at the FDA hearings, noted that: “Regulated unclarity is often cited as the cause for hesitancy,” before reiterating the mantra of HealthCentral CEO Chris Schroeder and others, that: “The conscious choice not to engage is a conscious choice to be irrelevant in the conversation.”

Whether or not anybody seriously thought that two days in DC would provide all the answers, the fact is that pharma clearly has been holding back. Michele Sharp, senior director, US regulatory at Eli Lilly & Co, spoke for many on day one of the hearings: “Lilly has avoided significant interaction with healthcare professionals and patients about our products in social media forums largely because of a lack of clarity in understanding FDA's expectations as to how we could participate and comply with FDA requirements.”

The key concerns includes legal responsibility for content that faces Rx advertising and how to deal with adverse events reporting. “No one company can monitor the entire internet,” said Tony Blank of Boston Scientific and AdvaMed.

Not true, said others. “We can [monitor everything],” contended Bill Drummy, CEO of Heartbeat Digital. “The software exists to do it.”

Meanwhile, back at the New York forum, Jonathan Richman, director of strategic planning at Bridge Worldwide (and author, Dose of Digital) disputed the common notion that the number of adverse events that would potentially need to be reported is too great to police. Around one in 500 pieces of content qualifies as an adverse event, he said. Citing data from Nielsen BuzzMetrics, which reports 83,000 new pieces of healthcare from around 1,350 healthcare sites, Richman noted that there are around 166 adverse events a day for the whole pharma universe to deal with.

“That's pretty manageable,” he said.
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