The FDA’s recent social media draft guidance is a bit of a relief for some in the pharmaceutical trade, but a conversation with Murray Aitken, executive director of the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, indicates anyone betting this will lead to a blueprint for risk-free social media interaction should dial back expectations.

“No amount of guidance by the FDA will eliminate gray areas…or even risk when it comes to the use of social media, or indeed any media, by pharmaceutical companies,” he told MM&M.

This statement gets some additional heft considering the timing: IMS released its survey of pharmaceutical social media engagement to the press more than a week before the FDA draft guidance was published. The impact: “we added one sentence referencing the fact that this draft guidance has been issued,” Aitken said, days after the FDA released its rough draft, and his stand on not waiting around for things to gel is clear.

“Companies who are committed to patient-centric care and engaging with patients must recognize that increasingly those patients are gathering in social-media channels, and if the companies are not, then it’s a stretch to claim that they are truly patient-centric,” he said.

IMS released its findings to the wider infoverse Tuesday, and its verdict is that pharma has an opportunity and an obligation to participate. A key reason is that it’s where healthcare professionals and patients or caregivers congregate. Aitken also notes that having a Twitter handle or a Facebook page does not make a company social and that failure to engage—as in be social—is to pharma’s detriment.

“One of the things that people expect in the social-media realm is that if they post a comment, that somebody responds,” Aitken said, and added that “simply getting a response” is sometimes enough but that “if no one is responding…patients are going to be frustrated.”

The IMS team found that ending patient frustration can be mutually beneficial, because social-media interactions reveal what information is being sought and when, outside the confines of a focus group.

For example, IMS found that younger patients tend to investigate treatments before agreeing to them, while older patients tend to research treatments after starting a regimen, and that patients and caregivers continue to poke around the Internet for information for the duration of the condition.

Tapping into data from Manhattan Research, IMS also notes that healthcare providers are big Wikipedia users. Although the crowd-sourced site is a hands-off for pharma—the community is highly sensitive to corporate input —Aitken says Wikipedia’s value is that it gives pharma a chance to know what is on the pages, and if information needs correcting, pharma could possibly seek indirect ways to convey what information is wrong or needs modification. At the same time, he says this same misinformation could “affect the way a company’s website explains certain issues associated with the disease or a drug.”

Despite general industry reticence—IMS found that half of the top 50 pharmaceutical companies do not engage on social media—not everyone is holding back. Johnson & Johnson tops IMS’s discrete reach, relevance and relationship indices.

Aitken said the over-the-counter business is not what’s helping J&J lead. “It’s clear from what we’ve seen that J&J as a company has, more than other companies, embraced the notion that patients are increasingly gathering at social-media channels and sites,” he said, as well as pointed out that “a number of other companies have consumer health businesses.”

Novo Nordisk, Bayer, UCB and GlaxoSmithKline are making inroads despite a general industry perception that it’s too risky to address medical communities—be it patient or professional communities—in the very spaces where they discuss and debate conditions, care and medications.

Aitken said it’s not that these companies are ignoring that social-media engagement includes a bit of risk, but that the industry “can’t pretend that we don’t have hundreds of thousands of discussions…about the therapies that we have, the brands that we have and so on [going on in social media].”

IMS’s executive director himself uses social media for specific fact-finding uses. The New Zealander said Twitter is “really a remarkably efficient way to stay on top of substance and content in healthcare,” and that Facebook is a “very efficient way to maintaining a real connection with people who live in a very different environment or circumstance” than his own.