Insights February 2010

Big Pharma Listens

Neil Seeman


Big Pharma moved quickly with significant cash and medicine donations to Haiti this week. Pharma's agile deployment of resources to Haiti was impressive, coinciding as it did with the JP Morgan Healthcare conference in San Francisco where the industry was considering its future business model.
Here's my take: If Big Pharma wants to survive, it needs to do more than push pills.

I figure Big Pharma is where the newspaper industry sat in 2000. It needs to do more, but with much less money. It is losing its oligopoly on products (patent expiration); it is fighting a growing legion of competitors (generics); it has little content (a weak pipeline); and it enjoys less capital for exploration (weak R&D).

Like the few media players that are thriving today, the winning Pharma companies will embrace the Web, real-time communications and social networking. Mergers and acquisitions, joint marketing, and co-promotions can only go so far in propping up the sagging industry. Although there is always the possibility of a blockbuster drug on the horizon, what we know with certainty is that more patients, caregivers and providers will search online for health information in the new decade.

One new business model for Pharma includes analytics - packaging clinical information with other data of value for private and public sector payors - cost-effectiveness data, patient satisfaction data, treatment and compliance trends, and information on unmet patient needs. Another fashionable idea is so-called 'smart pills' - which transmit data about a patient back to physicians after the pills are swallowed. (Smart yes, but it calls up memories of Star Trek's Borg Collective).

Still another Pharma offering is consulting, ranging from regulatory expertise, intellectual property, and risk management.

Of greatest excitement to Pharma, however, should be social media, where Pharma enjoys a thoughtful, growing audience of information-seeking e-patients and e-caregivers eager to discuss their specific needs, concerns and preferences.

Pharma has been late to the gate in social media, well behind other sectors, even behind laggards like the auto sector. Pharma can partner with analytics firms and researchers to curate information posted online by patients and caregivers. To be sure, Pharma always has special and important sensitivities to heed, including international regulatory rulings and privacy laws. There is also considerable resistance from some doctors to Pharma's involvement in social media.

Yet after the FDA Hearing on the Internet and Social Mediain November, there should now be heightened interest by Pharma in social media. Stakeholders agreed that the industry should be responsible for content they originate, yet there is no obligation to monitor and respond to user-driven content.

Many of the big Pharma companies are exploring social media. J&J purchased Children With Diabetes in 2008. The online community's goal is to make the care journey for children's diabetes less complex, and to increase awareness of the need for greater diabetes care for children at school, and for research into a cure. J&J's division Ortho-McNeil-Janssen launched the ADHD Moms™ community on Facebook. Here 'Mom-bassadors'™ share their experiences about how they have helped care for their children with the routine challenges of ADHD. Novartis Oncology has spearheaded CML Earth, a social network that connects Chronic Myeloid Leukemia patients. AstraZenecaUS has created My Asthma Story, a site and YouTube channel for its product Symbicort. Bristol-Myers Squibb created the Advanced Breast Cancer Community, an information source and online community for metastatic breast cancer patients, caregivers, family and friends.

Beyond offering a support community for patients and their families, an added benefit of social media is the ability to engage with clients from needs identification through to clinical development. Reaching out to e-patients and e-caregivers can provide immediate feedback and strategic direction. In July 2009, Roche Diabetes Care invited diabetes specialists and bloggers to a social media summitto learn from the opinions of participants. These sites can also boost Pharma's public image. In May, Sanofi-Aventis launched, an interactive video news site. When these sorts of sites contain authentic patient messages as opposed to corporate messages, the oft-depicted image of sinister 'Big Pharma' melts away."

Pharma sponsorship does not impair the relevance of the posted clinical content on its interactive sites. Pharma has a vested interest in ensuring that information posted on its interactive sites is timely, accurate and balanced. Pharma, like any information business today, should know that (great) content is king.

About the Author(s)

Neil Seeman is director of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell.


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