Merck, one of the earliest drugmakers to pursue a collaborative Big Data agenda, has broadened its analytics approach. The pharma company, through its one-year-old medical information and innovation (M2i2) unit, is now partnering with a slate of organizations at the intersection of Big Data and health IT.

A partnership with Boston Children’s Hospital, announced by M2i2 in late February, seeks to harness publicly available information from Twitter and Facebook to glean insights about insomnia.

Merck sees this “as an opportunity to better understand the patient voice,” said Sachin Jain, chief medical information and innovation officer at Merck, in a statement.

Along similar lines, M2i2 is also working with the online oncology community Smart Patients, according to slides recently posted to the web by the Merck unit.

The tie-ups follow Merck’s 2013 pact with online patient network and research platform PatientsLikeMe to understand patients’ response to psoriasis treatment.

Dilip Phadnis, director of marketing intelligence at Alliance Life Sciences Consulting Group (ALSCG), which has studied Big Data use by pharma, said Merck’s latest wave of team-ups signals a maturation point:  Pharma is moving beyond its initial slew of Big Data pacts, such as Pfizer’s partnerships with clinical data outfit Humedica and insurer Humana, AstraZeneca’s deals with IMS Health and Wellpoint, and Sanofi’s team-up with Medco.

EMRs and HCPs, said Phadnis, represent the next wave. “All stakeholders are traveling up the learning curve together, and it’s really a very collaborative effort.”

Indeed, some of M2i2’s other recent hook-ups include collaborations with EMR outfits Practice Fusion and Allscripts to co-develop clinical decision support content, as well as with Maccabi Healthcare Services, a two-million-member Israeli healthcare provider, to leverage the provider’s longitudinal database to understand how drugs behave in the real world.

Phadnis predicts that such collaborations will continue to grow. He sees social media as a big driver, as well as payers.

Insurers, he said, are looking for scientifically valid, direct comparisons of treatments in the real-world setting; analyses showing how adherence changes when the drug cost changes; and studies of patient populations across multiple plans.

At the moment, health economists, rather than market researchers, are the ones generating these studies, although ALSCG found that Big Data is being operationalized to a greater degree. “We’re seeing a lot of [cases] where Big Data has now come down…to the hands of operational managers in pharma,” Phadnis said.

But the biggest aha moment from the ALSCG research is that collaborations are the main catalyst driving the Big Data movement. Phadnis’s advice to pharma: “Find collaborations and form them before they get taken away” by your competitors.”