A couple of weeks back I had the opportunity to have dinner with a bevy of social media powerhouses including: Marc Monseau of Johnson and Johnson, Laurie Edwards, Jack Barrette from WEGO Health, Shwen Gwee from Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Paul Levy from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, e-Patient Dave deBronkart and Alicia Staley. As you can see, this was the type of conversation that does not happen frequently enough—a melting pot of patients, pharma people, hospital executives and agency wonks. The conversation ranged from new babies, to babies on the way, to social media strategy, to the challenges of searching for information on rare diseases. But what stood out to me the most during the course of the conversation resulted in both satisfaction and frustration. The Holy Grail for pharma social media remains empowering the patient.
That was a satisfying piece of information in the sense that I’ve long trumpeted the need for social media strategies focused on the Return on Health of the patient. It’s always nice to affirm that you are not crazy. It was frustrating because what I heard from the table was it was a need mostly going unmet. What became apparent to me during our dinner was that this is not a problem that can be solved by pharmaceutical companies in isolation. Just like pharmaceutical social media engagement should not take place in a vacuum, creating a healthcare system where the patient is empowered to play a larger role in the decision-making process requires systems thinking.
Pharmaceutical companies can lead the charge in part because of their unique access to information but also because of their substantial sphere of influence. Pharmaceutical companies have access to the best information available on treatment options, dealing with side effects and current research. Like it or not, they also have pull on capital hill, with insurance providers, in the doctor’s office and with the patient. Pharmaceutical companies must serve as the catalyst to empowering the patient.
But the process can’t stop there. As agency people, we tend to focus our energies on swaying the folks that write the checks. In order to truly empower the patient, we need to broaden our field of vision. How can we expect the empowered patient to achieve a good outcome when doctors are incentivized to see more patients and not spend more time with patients? What good is an empowered patient if she can’t find information on the latest clinical trials on her rare disease because search algorithms do not lend themselves to uncovering that information? What’s the use of an empowered patient if doctors are not trained to take input?
I admit I am raising a problem far too complex for me to solve—something that requires brains far smarter than mine. But I am smart enough to realize that pharmaceutical companies engaging in social media alone will not empower the patient—we need the collaboration of lawmakers, insurance providers, hospitals, doctors and patients.
Even with this complexity, it all centers on the patient.