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Are you there, Facebook? It's me, Pharma.

By David Handelsman

As social media continues to grow in its pervasiveness, it becomes increasingly important that health care and life sciences industries successfully apply this new knowledge currency. Because many aspects of health care are regulated both by ethical and regulatory practices, it is often difficult to understand how the open frontiers of social media can align with the rigors of health care.

Social media, and the term here is broadly used to mean any online forum that supports interactions between the author and his or her audience (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, blogs, published articles that accept comments, etc.), is enormously varied and brand/drug/treatment-related content is not narrowly confined to a limited number of social media channels. Unlike the recent past, a company’s corporate messaging can be quickly drowned out by the unmanaged conversations of contributors who use pseudonyms. Articles, followed by lengthy commentary, bloom from both mainstream media and niche publishers. Tweets and Facebook entries appear without notice and spawn strong - often repetitive, frequently contradictory - comments.  

Biopharmaceutical companies, like all retailers and manufacturers, have a strong desire to mine the social media metaverse for information. One straightforward approach, previously written about here, describes the opportunity to mine social media for early indicators of both safety signals and the means to provide real-time management of disease outbreaks. In both of these cases, the goal is for biopharmaceutical companies (as well as other interested parties) to mine broad public content for critical information. For biopharmaceutical companies, however, the desire to mine social media in order to identify potential safety issues is mired in a classic case of “how much is enough?” It remains unclear where biopharmaceutical companies should look, how frequently and how deeply.  

In recent months, there has been growing interest in full-scale social media monitoring from retailers and manufacturers. Companies like Dell and Gatorade are deploying social media centers to eavesdrop on virtually every online public conversation regarding their branded products. In these cases, the companies are looking for early (and in some cases near-immediate) insight into understanding both the general sentiment of the online community regarding their products or latest marketing efforts, as well as specific information to more quickly address emerging product issues that appear in the marketplace.

These initial attempts to create social media monitoring centers have been primarily focused on searching and parsing - looking for every reference to a specified set of keywords - and aggregating this information into basic summary reports. These approaches, however, fall far short of the potential to aggressively mine and analyze this rich content with advanced text analytics. By applying well-defined ontologies that drive a true text mining process, it becomes possible to go far beyond searching and parsing to identify the associated text that begins to tell a comprehensive story. Advanced text analytics are an enormous part of this process, and provide the means to not only accurately describe sentiment among the brands being listened to, but to intervene early and decisively before such trends create problems for the brand.

For the biopharmaceutical industries, comprehensively listening to the social media metaverse may be as far as direct interaction with online communities can go. Unlike other industries, communication between the biopharmaceutical company and the consumer is strictly regulated. Any statement from the biopharmaceutical company could be construed as advertising, and advertising for prescription medications is highly regulated. It is easy to imagine that a social media message (even a 140-character tweet) would need to be followed by a long list of disclaimers indicating the risks associated with the medication. 

A recent survey among biopharmaceutical companies directly supports this conundrum.  Almost 40 percent of respondents indicate their company has no plans to utilize online social networks. Industry is waiting for clear guidance from the FDA, but the survey further indicates that more than half the participants still anticipate confusion after such guidance is provided.

Sitting on the sidelines, especially from a text analytics perspective, is not an option. While there are legitimate concerns about what a biopharmaceutical company can say within social media, the available information online is too rich to ignore. Biopharmaceutical companies need to adopt an approach whereby they listen aggressively and comprehensively, prepare responses and then act. In this case, preparation involves not only message management, but also addressing the regulatory issues associated with any message. While this biopharmaceutical messaging will become asynchronous with social media commentary due to the delays necessary to prepare such messages, it is important to act and be prepared.

Critically, anyone with the means and interest can listen to social media - competitors, independent researchers, whistle-blowers - and these groups have access to the same rich content and analytical tools to draw conclusions from global social media. Biopharmaceutical companies must listen, if for no other reason than others will also be listening. While their own reaction will necessarily be measured, preparation and the ability to act - and not just react - are critical in today's market.

Bio: David Handelsman leads the strategic development of analytics solutions targeted at clinical trials business operations. This role extends his existing responsibilities, which focus on data management and biostatistics, and addresses the often-overlooked need to optimally execute clinical trials. 

iMetaverse is the collective online shared space, and the term was first described in the science fiction novel Snow Crash, (Neal Stephenson, 1992).
iiDavid Handelsman. "A Canary in a Coal Mine? How the ability to apply text mining and signal detection algorithms to social media's real-time data provides unheard of value." Applied Clinical Trials. October 2009.

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