Social media’s most active users value pharma’s participation online, especially to support product safety and to battle online misinformation.

This is according WEGO Health/Digital Health Coalition, who conducted an online survey of 356 health activists in October. The results showed that 81% of those surveyed agreed that pharma firms’ use of social media tools: “provides their communities with important updates on products or services.” This is a 9% increase over its 2011 survey findings, the firms note.

When asked to name a drug company they were aware of that used social media to engage patients, Pfizer got by far the most with 32 mentions, followed by Janssen with 14 mentions, Novartis with 13 and Sanofi with ten.

In survey comments, WEGO health activists cited examples of best practices coming from pharma, which include: “Novartis does the best job – you see Novartis pretty much everywhere - particularly in cancer related discussions,” and: “Sanofi-Aventis [sic] is actively trying to involve the diabetes community through a fantastic social media manager”.

Bob Brooks, executive VP of WEGO Health, said: “WEGO Health Activists told us that social media is an important tool for health communication,” and added that his members are ‘growing impatient’ with non-participating companies.

US regulation on social media

A majority of online health activists said they support regulation of pharma companies’ social media participation. The FDA has largely been quiet on this front, but earlier this year the US regulator said that unsolicited questions about off-label drug made via forums like Twitter and Facebook can be replied to, but responses must be made privately.

But the FDA stopped short of releasing any formal guidelines across the whole digital spectrum, leaving some observers unsatisfied.

The survey revealed that 82% of health activists agreed misinformation about pharma products that are left uncorrected online ‘can be harmful to the public health’, and the same amount agreed companies have a responsibility to correct misinformation in social media if they become aware of the content.

Two-thirds (66%) called for regulation when companies pay for content to be placed in social media, whilst 80% said that pharma companies should be held responsible for comments they make in social media – but they should not be held responsible for comments made by other users.