Pharma, physicians and Web 2.0 strategies

Andrew Tolve investigates how pharma can use online communities to connect with patients, providers, and payers

The emergence of social media and Web 2.0 tools has created powerful channels to connect stakeholders in the healthcare world. Increasingly, patients are congregating on sites and forums where they can share experiences and insights, offer advice and support, enroll in clinical trials, and shape the conversation around their disease categories.

Physicians meanwhile have flocked to online communities where they can learn about best practice, expand their professional networks, and stay apprised of new studies and hot topics. The same goes for nurses, pharmacists, and pharma professionals across the healthcare spectrum.

Which is great if you’re a physician wanting to connect with another physician, or a patient wanting to connect with another patient. In the Web 2.0 world, connecting with similarly situated, diagnosed, or licensed individuals is a breeze. But what if you’re a patient wanting to connect with a physician? Or a pharma company wanting to reach out to dentists? Or a pharmacist wanting to leverage connectivity with nurses?

When searching for this sort of cross-community connectivity—the sort of connectivity that could actually usher in a more efficient, personalized, and productive healthcare system—some serious limitations start to appear. “We’re reproducing on the Web advantages and problems that we have in real life,” says Denise Silber, founder of Basil Strategies consultancy in Paris and chair of the Doctors 2.0 & You conference. “In today’s online world, we see a lot of physicians and patients side by side but not working together in communities.” (For more on Web 2.0 strategies, see Special report: Pharma and social media.)

A fragmented digital landscape

The facts don’t lie about online engagement in the healthcare world. Sites like in Britain boast 40,000 doctors connecting every day. In the US, 120,000 physicians belong to Sermo. In China, has surpassed two million physician users.

A quick run through of the big players on the patient front produces equally impressive numbers that reflect patient engagement in online sites around the world, in developed and emerging markets alike. However, the inroads connecting these communities to one another is often sparse. Communities are separated by language and country, disease and profession. Access to many doctors’ forums is restricted to certified physicians, and oftentimes those communities are further segmented by specialties. In the US, for instance, “physicians and patients look very inwardly,” says Silber. “As a result, you have many different patient and physician communities but none has everyone.”

On the one hand, Silber believes this sort of online fragmentation is healthy. “Professionals want to have a space for themselves, and patients appreciate the possibility of discussing their conditions without being concerned about what physicians are thinking,” she says.

On the other hand, patients do want to be able to reach out across the digital divide when it is convenient for them, and physicians and other stakeholders generally would like to be able to do likewise. “This is true of human nature,” says Silber. “We like to be with people like ourselves, and we also like to be mixed with others, but not all the time.”

Striking up that delicate balance is one of the keys to unleashing the power of Web 2.0 for health, Silber believes. (For more on using technology to connect pharma, physicians and patients, see Special report: Patient's Week 2011.)

A more connected online space

In some respects, achieving a more connected online space will require contraction. Such is the enthusiasm around the current Health 2.0 trend that new communities are cropping up right and left—communities developed by patients; by the friends of patients; by associations of patients; by pharma companies trying to create a community of patients; by nonprofits and government agencies.

“So many doctors I meet think they’re going to be the one to create a better community for doctors,” says Silber. “So many pharma companies feel they have an angle on something they’d like to develop for patients.”

The same goes for online tools and apps—apps for finding a pharmacy near you; for calculating medicine; for breaking down diet; for presenting a personalized online health dashboard. “Every health tech company feels they’re the next Google waiting to be discovered,” says Silber. (For more on pharma and apps, see Special report: Mobile apps and pharma and Special report: Pharma and the iPad.)

The result is a market saturated with solutions, and therefore a market whose concentration is diluted and communities whose voice and impact are diminished. In time, as the market selects the best online tools and communities are absorbed in larger communities, a more concentrated and interconnected reality will emerge. “This will not last forever,” Silber says. “There will be some shakeout.”

Cross-community connections

In the meantime, pharma companies have an opportunity to recognize the need for cross-community engagement and leverage their resources to open up the dialogue. Silber points to an example like Sanofi’s “Connecting Nurses” website. The site acts as a hub for nurses throughout Europe and around the globe. In creating the Connecting Nurses platform, Sanofi reached out to a bevy of stakeholders, from the International Council of Nurses to the Nurse Practitioner Healthcare Foundation to the French Association for the Development of Educational Therapy.

“By approaching these various groups, Sanofi is helping connect different communities,” Silber says. “It’s also getting powerful insights into what those communities’ informational needs are, what their exchange needs are, and what resources there’s demand for beyond this website, which allows them to really understand the audience.”

As a connected initiative, Sanofi launched the Care Challenge, which highlights exciting healthcare ideas from nurses and allows other stakeholders like policy makers and administrators to evaluate and act upon the best of them. Silber highlights this as best practice because in the Web 2.0 world, reaching out and offering tools and platforms to engage is step one in securing a base.

“Social media is a new way of dealing with people,” she says. “You build a relationship over time, and engage with them on the faith that when they want to hear about your product, they’ll ask you directly. They’ll know how to contact you, and you can provide things directly without going through the advertising world.”

A Doctors 2.0 team will also be presenting at eyeforpharma’s eMarketing Europe & Mobile 2012 conference, March 27 and 28th in Barcelona. In May, Silber will chair the second annual Doctors 2.0 & You conference in Paris. This year’s conference is specifically devoted to Web 2.0, social media, and mobile apps for healthcare, with a focus on bringing disparate stakeholders together—patients, professionals, providers, pharmaceuticals, government, payers. 

For more on pharma and Web 2.0 join the sector's other key players SFE Europe and eMarketing Europe on March 27-29 in Barcelona, SFE USA on June 12-14 in Somerset, NJ, and the Mobile Strategy and Engagement Summit Jun 13, 2012- Jun 14, 2012 Somerset, NJ.

For more on Web 2.0 and patients, check out Patient Summit Europe on May 29-30 in London.

For exclusive business insights, download eyeforpharma's Pharma e-Marketing Strategy, Pharma Emerging Markets Report 2011-12 and Pharma Key Account Management Report 2011-12.

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