Life Sciences and Social Media: 2014

The social media track at DIA 2014 (the annual conference of the Drug Information Association) was excellent this year: lots of sessions, most of them centered on real-world social media usage, with top-notch presenters and material. Here’s my take on some of the main themes and takeaways I got from the show.

Life sciences as an industry is cutting-edge in its use of social media. I don’t mean this from a marketing or ad agency perspective – by this standard, life sciences is probably middle-of-the-road compared to CPG, retail, banking, and financial services. But when you look at social media as a core part of wider value-chain activities, rather than as simply advertising or marketing, these other industries are far less cutting-edge than you would think, and life sciences is further ahead.

For instance, in some important areas, life sciences treats social media as a more integrated part of core business operations – e.g. clinical trial design, patient recruitment, and pharmacovigilance. In the life sciences, these three fundamental business activities are currently being transformed by the use of social media, with exciting results for both life science organizations and patients.

By contrast, the social media programs in these other industries I’ve mentioned are, more often than not, siloed and disconnected from core business operations. For example, the organization’s use of Twitter (both monitoring and interacting) typically is not integrated into the wider customer service context; it’s treated as a separate animal, not as an integral part of the many ways the organization interacts with its customers (phone, email, mail, fax, face-to-face).

To date, life science organizations seem more focused on external social media usage than internal. This is one area where I see the life sciences lagging a bit. In the wider world, the use of internal social media tools for collaboration is fairly widespread. I’d say most Fortune 1000 organizations in other industries provide some sort of social collaboration tool for employees (microblogging, communities, wikis, etc.).

Given this, I was expecting to hear more at DIA about social collaboration in areas like R&D, device design and engineering, regulatory submission, and quality. All of these are core business functions that require high levels of collaboration across teams, in many instances with geographically distributed or global footprints. As life science organizations grow in size and expand geographically, traditional methods of collaboration (email, phone, face-to-face) begin to break down and become less effective and sustainable. In other industries, the value of social media to help overcome these challenges is well understood; I was surprised to see so little about it at DIA.

There’s not yet consensus in life sciences about the true risks associated with social media usage. At the close of a session about the use of social media for clinical trial design and patient recruitment, I asked a question about how organizations were overcoming the objection from internal stakeholders that social media poses too much risk. The response from the panel and vocal audience members caught me totally off guard: Risk? What risk? In a nutshell, these folks felt because the FDA both approves the use of social media and itself is active on social media channels, that the risks of the use of social media were minimal, if any, for life sciences firms.

I was caught off guard because in other heavily regulated industries, organizations still perceive social media as posing significant risk, irrespective of whether regulators sanction its use. For example, FINRA was one of the first regulatory bodies to provide guidance on the use of social media, guidance which is generally considered thoughtful and well-informed. Despite that, you’d be hard pressed to find a financial services organization that believes FINRA’s rulings removes risk from its use of social media. It might acknowledge that these rulings help bring the risks into sharper focus, but not consider that they eliminate them altogether.

Following this particular DIA session, five or six people came up to me to tell me how surprised they were at the Risk? What risk? response, because, as they shared with me, their organizations were definitely struggling with the risks of social media usage, FDA guidelines or no. Although by no means scientific, this disconnect definitely suggested to me that there’s a lack of consensus about the true risks of social media among life sciences organizations. It’ll be interesting to see how it resolves over the next few years, as both social media tools and the use of these tools by life science organizations continue to evolve.

A strong partnership is developing between consumer social media and life science organizations. In many industries, the relationship between consumer social media and corporate organizations is tenuous at best. You almost get the sense that corporations would much rather put the genie back in the bottle and make social media go away than dive in with both feet and do it right. Of course, the organizations that have done it right are the exceptions that prove the rule (e.g. Kohl’s, Starbucks, Dell, Southwest Airlines, Zappos, Amazon, etc.) and have reaped mind-boggling benefits from their social media investments.

Given all this, I was encouraged at DIA to see the developing partnership between life sciences firms and relevant consumer social media sites – e.g. PatientsLikeMe. Across a range of core, value-chain business activities, life sciences organizations are turning to consumer social media sites for access to study participants and to unfiltered information about the patient experience with their products and the conditions they’re designed to treat, as well as patient-centered requirements for study design. I’m excited and hopeful that the rapid pace of consumer social media evolution, combined with new approaches to life sciences innovation, will deepen this partnership and improve the ability of life science firms to profitably meet the needs of patients across an ever-wider range of therapeutic areas.

The Final Word

Alright—that’s my take on social media and life sciences, post-DIA 2014. As usual, I’d love to hear what you all have to say about any of this. Heckle, agree, disagree, change the subject to something more interesting: Jump in, and let’s get the conversation started.

Rich Medina
Joe Shepley
I’m VP and Practice Lead, focusing on developing Doculabs’ InfoSec practice and its applications in a wide range of industries.