Twenty-three of the top 50 pharmaceutical companies worldwide are now actively using social media - on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube - to engage with patients, although only 10 are using all three services for healthcare-related topics, according to a new report from the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics.

To examine the current state of consumer behaviours on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, researchers developed the IMS Health Social Media Engagement Index, and this shows Johnson & Johnson to be the top-ranking firm out of those reviewed for the report, says IMS Health. Mid-sized organisations such as Novo Nordisk, Boehringer Ingelheim and UCB are utilising social media as effectively, or more effectively, than the largest pharmaceutical companies, it adds, and also finds that the overall level of engagement between companies and patients has increased steadily during the past year.

While many companies are using social media primarily as a unilateral broadcasting channel to physicians and patients, with limited interaction or fostering of discussion, smaller firms with narrower therapeutic focuses and consumer health companies typically have the highest levels of social media patient engagement, the study shows.

It also finds regulatory agencies are active in social media, even as manufacturers await final guidance or requirements. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has a particularly strong Facebook presence, ranks highly on social media engagement and has a higher relationship score on the IMS Health Social Media Engagement Index than any pharmaceutical company, while the European Medicines Agency (EMA) operates its Twitter feed with one of the highest-reach Index scores, second only to the FDA.

“The increased engagement of regulators will drive further uptake of the digital channels by other stakeholders and demonstrate the importance of these channels to the overall healthcare ecosystem,” says IMS Health.

The researchers report that Wikipedia is the single leading source of medical information for patients and healthcare professionals, and they also note that social media engagement lags significantly within the population segment that uses healthcare services the most. 

Age is one of a few differentiating factors in the use of social networking sites, and while younger people tend to conduct online investigations before the start of therapy, as measured by prescriptions or sales of medications, patients aged 50 or over tend to begin their treatments prior to seeking information online, they say.

However, IMS Health forecasts that the difference of utilisation by age groups will diminish as “digital natives” increase their involvement and influence professionally and privately within their networks.

While regulatory uncertainty remains a factor limiting social media use, IMS Health urges the industry to make better use of these services to engage patients and improve the use of medicines. “In general, the industry needs to become less risk-averse to new engagements with stakeholders to remain relevant in the overall healthcare discussion,” it says.