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COVID-19 Unveils Social Media Might: Is Pharma Listening Hard Enough?

COVID-19 Unveils Social Media Might: Is Pharma Listening Hard Enough?

Source : 'Scrip Intelligence'

COVID-19 has amplified health-related conversations on social media like never before and pharma may want to "listen in" harder to leverage insights from such unfettered big data across product life cycles and functions.

Tanmay Saraykar, director, offerings management and global delivery, social media intelligence at IQVIA, noted how the coronavirus pandemic had not only “taken the world by storm” but also triggered unprecedented social media participation. Online platforms have experienced substantial user activity related to the outbreak with a staggering one billion-plus mentions globally from November 2019 to May 2020.

“When it comes to conversations on a single healthcare topic on social media, a billion has never happened before,” Saraykar said on a recent webinar on the subject.

The closest to COVID-19-linked conversation volumes over the past decade, though by a huge differential, was seen in 2014 with the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis "ice-bucket challenge", which had a “more positive tonality” and around five million conversations. There were an estimated one million conversations pertaining to Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in 2014-15.

“COVID-19 has wider participation - on average, almost every seventh human being on the planet, and that has created this large unstructured big data that is rich in insights,” Saraykar said.

Earlier this month, a blog by Saraykar and colleague Divya Vaswani on the impact of COVID-19 on social media conversations noted that the top five most discussed drugs were hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), followed by cholorquine, remdesivir, azithromycin and HCQ combination therapy and lopinavir/ritonavir combination treatment.

The top drug makers in terms of social media mentions in the US were Abbott Laboratories Inc. (with over 750,000 mentions), Gilead Sciences Inc., Roche, Bayer AG and Sanofi, while the most frequently mentioned medical device firm was 3M Co., with 450,000 posts, the IQVIA executives noted in the blog.

Industry experts underscore the importance of "social listening", which helps complete market research in a quick and efficient way, identifying what audiences are currently interested in.

“In other words, you can find out what doctors or patients or caregivers (depending on how one defines one's customers) care about so that you can target a marketing campaign that will resonate with those consumers,” said Salil Kallianpur, a former executive vice-president at GlaxoSmithKline PLC in India who now runs a digital health consultancy.

Kallianpur believes that social listening is a “must” for insights related to a range of areas including identifying product opportunities, measuring the social impact of campaigns and influencer marketing, competitive intelligence, trend tracking and crisis management.

Interestingly, the IQVIA webinar also heard that Twitter has been the dominant platform for conversations on COVID-19, accounting for 87% of social media activity globally. News platforms were also a prominent source of information in Germany.

Twitter, despite its 280-character limit, is still seen as rich in insights, with much to glean in terms of patient experiences, influencer perspectives, caregiver concerns and other topics. For example information around how patients may identify symptoms, which physician specialty is involved, what’s the first line of treatment and how do they manage the condition can all be garnered through social media, the IQVIA executives said in the webinar.

 “A detailed account of patient experiences is available in social media. This is not just true for COVID-19 but a lot of other diseases, brands, consumer health products and other public health issues,” Saraykar explained, underscoring that insights from social research are both “statistically significant and scientifically valid.”

Saraykar and colleague Vaswani’s blog, dated 4 June, also underscored how insights from social listening can help firms, among other things: identify intervention opportunities; inform trial recruitment and segmentation, targeting, and messaging; and track the treatment journey, brand perceptions, sentiment drivers, unmet needs, disease management challenges and the humanistic burden of the disease.

Nevertheless, social media intelligence works best when complementary to traditional market research methods.

Some other striking social media trends the webinar mentioned were that about 72% of patients in Germany search for information about their health online – the “Dr Google thing” that is perhaps best avoided but nevertheless done - and 20% of patients request a specific prescription after researching on the internet.

“Patients are going to doctors after having a strong opinion that they have formed online and on social media,” Carina Mikolajczak, engagement manager, social media intelligence, IQVIA, said during the webinar.

Mikolajczak also noted how regulatory authorities such as the US Food and Drug Administration and the European Medicines Agency are encouraging pharma to explore the use of social media data and social media intelligence. The FDA, for example, encourages external stakeholders to explore the use of social media tools to shed light on patient perspectives.  

The US agency, in its patient-focused drug development guidance documents, also noted that targeted social media searches may be useful during the preliminary stages of a study to complement literature review findings, inform the development of research tools (e.g., qualitative study discussion guides), or as a supplement to traditional research approaches (e.g., literature, one-on-one interviews, focus groups, or expert opinion).

“The agencies are recommending not to only look at social media and online but take it into account as one part of the information that you are gathering to better understand your business and what’s happening with your drugs in the market,” Mikolajczak explained.

Ex-GSK executive Kallianpur, however, indicated that pharma companies, in general, still need to accept the importance of social listening and most brand managers still don’t know where to fit this tool in their marketing mix. The “fear of the unknown” and not being conversant with the technique only makes them over-reliant on old techniques of market research that are “more time-tested.”

Compliance issues also perhaps weigh on the adoption of social listening. Pharma brand experts fear legal risks that could arise due to adverse event reporting (AER). FDA guidelines, Kallianpur noted, require pharma companies to identify the “identifiable reporter, identifiable patient, suspect drug or biological product, and the specific adverse experience before filing an AER report."

However, on social media platforms, these reports often lack the details required for proper AER evaluation, he added.

By Anju Ghangurde