The UK’s Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) had something to say to pharma at a recent conference. According to Dominic Tyer’s excellent Digital Intelligence Blog, the ABPI’s web editor Melanie Quashie told attendees of SMI’s Social Media In The Pharmaceutical Industry Conference that the trade association had no intentions of putting out any more specific guidelines, but that it saw no reason why pharma couldn’t use social media under the current code of practice.
According to Tyer, Quashie said, “If your objective is to benefit the patient, and you’re working within the boundaries of the Code of Practice, then there is nothing stopping companies embracing social media and taking the opportunity that it presents.”
That’s a heartening statement from a senior staffer at the trade association. Her opinion certainly shouldn’t be taken to represent the official line of the ABPI, but the fact is that increasingly, important institutions are beginning to acknowledge the potential of social media to improve public health, add value to the healthcare delivery system, and empower consumers, patients, and healthcare providers. In December, the FDA issued a draft guidance with similar language regarding the opportunities social media present to the pharmaceutical industry. These are important steps; they mean the powers that be are beginning to understand the power these media hold to transform health outcomes for the better.
But to answer Quashie’s rhetorical question, there is something stopping companies in the UK from embracing social media: the PMCPA. A day after Quashie encouraged companies to engage their consumers via social media, Dyer reported that the enforcement arm of the ABPI announced it found a breach of code against Allergan for a tweet by one of its employees. In short, the employee used his or her personal Twitter account to communicate with a friend who was working for an agency on behalf of a patient organization. The tweet mentioned a specific product (Botox) and mentioned one of its indications (stroke spasticity).
The employee, unfamiliar with the nuances of Twitter, meant to send the tweet as a direct message (DM) but instead tweeted it publicly to his or her friend, meaning that friend, their followers and the followers of the patient organization they tweeted on behalf could see it. Allergan has a company policy on the usage of social media by employees which prohibits mentioning specific products, and in truth this was the result of an error by an individual employee who was inexperienced using Twitter.
Nevertheless, the tweet was reported anonymously to the PMCPA, which found a breach of multiple parts of the code of practice, mainly the one preventing pharmaceutical companies from promoting prescription drugs directly to the public. The PMCPA felt that this tweet was in effect an advertisement.
Whether the ruling or the PMCPA’s interpretation of the code was appropriate is, I suspect, a matter of heated debate. But it seems fairly clear the ruling will have a chilling effect on pharma companies (and employees) considering the use of social media. In fact, the PMCPA in its ruling suggests “pharmaceutical company employees need to be extremely cautious when using social media.”
It would seem that the ABPI’s tacit endorsement coupled with the PMCPA’s latest slap on the wrist would indicate that if pharma is to proceed in adopting social media in the UK marketplace, it ought to be carried out with extreme caution.