Viva the Healthcare (Social) Revolution!

It’s easy to pick on big pharma. For good or bad, the industry continues to appear aloof and isolationist, and many are happy to wag a finger and declare big pharma solely a revenue-generating machine, sacrificing patient care and access to medicines for the almighty dollar. I happen to disagree with (most of) that sentiment. Having worked alongside diligent colleagues inside of big pharma for a number of years, I know there is an urge to improve patient lives, improve access to medicines, and make life-altering and life-saving drug therapies. It is from this perspective that I say, earnestly, the pharmaceutical industry is fucking up when it comes to social business…big time.

While many of us have led the charge to bring pharma into the age of social media marketing, pioneers like John PughAlex ButlerMarc MonseauRay Kerins, and Shwen Gwee have broken barriers in the use of social media within the pharmaceutical industry, and there have been breakthroughs in the use of social media to advance the industry (@PhRMA, pharmaforum) and improve engagement with patients (Roche Diabetes Blogger summits), it’s not enough. Over the last several years, many of us have had the conversation about how, if, and why pharmaceutical companies should, or should not, use social media. Honestly, it’s time to change the conversation and have a new one, because the old one is stagnant, and – frankly – I don’t care about the latest Pharma Facebook page that’s been launched or taken down, or about the number of Tweets sent by pharma Twitter handles in the last hour/day/week. I care about better patient outcomes, access to medicines, empowering both patients and HCPs in the treatment and prevention of illness, and accurate information about therapies on the market – and about using social media to facilitate and forge the partnerships necessary to enable this new reality. So, to pharmaceutical companies I say this: some of you are “doing” social, but you’re not “being” social, and here’s why – you’ve not done enough to alter your DNA so you can (begin to) function as a social business.

What is a Social Business Anyway?

The term social business was originally defined by Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammed Yunus as a non-loss, non-dividend company designed to address a social objective within the highly regulated marketplace of today [that should] seek to generate a modest profit [which] will be used to expand the company’s reach, improve the product or service or in other ways to subsidise the social mission*. This definition has morphed in the last few year into a fiery buzzword, its meaning has become mutable to suit the speaker and conversation. Of these mutable definitions, one of the most apt I’ve seen comes from Peter Kim who, along with David Armano and Jevon MacDonald wrote about Social Business Design, saying:

Social business draws on trends in technology, work, and society. Companies should care about social business because they can improve business outcomes (i.e., increase revenue or decrease costs). The core principles touch on all areas of a business, whether for business-to-customer engagement, employee-to-employee collaboration, or supply chain optimization. Making social business work requires focus on a company’s culture, connections, content exchanges, and measurement and analytics.

This is a brilliant piece of writing. It not only tells us what a social business is, but takes the time to inform us why we should care and how to make it work – in reality it’s a social business blueprint in the purest form.

Don’t regulations stop Big Pharma from adopting a social business model?

In a word, no. More specifically, they don’t have to. Don’t take my word for it – former FDA Associate Commissioner Peter Pitts has been vocal about the pitfalls, and opportunity, for Big Pharma when it comes to social media use in his battle cry Pharma, Guide Thyself. And FDA regulations, or the lack thereof, haven’t stopped companies like Boehringer Ingelheim or Sanofi US, companies who continue to roll out social programs as a matter of course and are beginning to evolve into a business with social DNA. So if regulations are a red herring, what is standing in the way?

Rigid, unchanging culture, a blinding focus on a narrow definition of ROI. A continual push on profit as THE leading indicator for pharma marketing business decisions instead of making the pivot to seeing profit as AN indicator, along with acknowledging the business benefit of building relationships in today’s marketplace – the return on relationship (#RonR), as Ted Rubin would wisely counsel us – these are all factors that continue to block major pharmaceutical companies from embracing a social business model.

If relationship building and #RonR still seems too squishy to be a “real” measure of business success, and therefore not something big pharma needs to focus on to be a social business, Harvard Business Review disagrees by the way, and you can read why in recent posts like Tweet Me, Friend Me, Make Me Buy and The View from the Field, I would point you instead – my doubting friend – to the trend the pharma industry is missing out on: harnessing big data. Big data, access to it, and adaptability, scalability, and usability of it by patients, payers and HCPs is THE future of healthcare social media – not Facebook, Twitter or any of the other current platforms out there. End of. We need to create new models for a new hybrid of business; just as our healthcare system needs a major overhaul if it’s to support a growing and changing populous, the healthcare business model needs to change, grow and morph into something consumers, payers and PATIENTS can use to gain access to the medicines they need for proper care. And, speaking of Big Data, if there was ever a time to join Todd Park, Aman Bhandari, Aetna, Kaiser Permanente, Health 2.0, and others in the Big Data Revolution it would be now, when VCs are looking to hackathons in record numbers for innovative ideas, outside-of-the-box thinking, and startups are stretching the limits of what’s possible in a resource-constrained economy (more about the next Big Data Hackathon here: Hackathon for the Human Brain and about the groundbreaking SXSW 2012 Healthcare Hackathon).

Viva Revolutíon!

Yet there is no groundbreaking news of a major pharmaceutical company leading a charge to be present at, promote or host a hackathon in any way. No one loudly promoting more patient engagement. There are no new faces at the table, but the same heroes pushing against a tired agenda and caught in a loop of off-label and adverse event conversations, debating ownership, legalese, and phantom compliance pitfall scenarios.

So, pharma where art thou? Who will lead your revolution? Your brand managers? Your CEOs? Who will step up. Even your agencies and thought leaders are failing you, becoming insular bobble heads delivering not on what you need but on what you ask. We must break from the norm, break out of our self-imposed silos and look outside of our expertise and our industry for the groundbreaking ideas that will lead us beyond a self-limiting focus on the current platforms and fear of regulations we can work within to optimize results. It can be done, because it has been done. The time for revolution is here. Who will join me in taking the first step? Who will stand beside me to lead the charge?

Revolutionaries to follow: I’m continually inspired by friends and colleagues who are pushing the bounds of the norm to disrupt the status quo.

13 thoughts on “Viva the Healthcare (Social) Revolution!

  1. Gigi,social engagement requires people to trust those who seek to engage them, and they must have the ring of authenticity. Today’s $3 bn decision against GSK for cooking the books of data on Avandia and misbranding Paxil and Wellbutrin represents the lack of transparency (or as CBS news is calling this case, “health care fraud”) that has plagued Big Pharma for the past decade. The result is seen through the lens of consumer trust surveys conducted by Harris Interactive among others, where Big Pharma’s rep is in the southern region with Big Tobacco, Big Oil, and new to the “Big” low-rep gang, Big Food.

    Transparency is the currency of this new accountable care era in health care. Those life science companies who embrace this M.O. will begin to re-build public trust. Health is Social: Viva La Revolution for those who want to collaborate in the larger health ecosystem beyond “the prescription!” Thanks for the rallying cry! JSK

  2. Yes! Big pharma would do well to heed your clarion call. Those organizations that are leading the charge will gain a position in which the laggards will struggle. Social media is a revolution in human relations and business communications. It’s going to require some pharma execs with big vision to overcome!

  3. Jane and Mark – thank you for taking up the issue of trust and transparency as part of the battle cry. They are key elements to the conversation and I struggled with streamlining and codifying this post while omitting those facets of the discussion. As Jane so accurately points out, trust is the new currency of business and transparency the currency of social business. Mark – I’m digging the mantra and wondering why I never knew about this before.

  4. Pingback: Viva the Healthcare (Social) Revolution! | Pharma | Scoop.it

  5. Jane’s point is critical, and leads us to remember that tinkering with social around the edges of pharma activity will not amount to much if the sort of ethos that social is built upon — aligning strong revenue generation with #socialgood rather than delivering ‘revenue at any cost'; defining, adopting and maintaining a strong ethical position; breaking the transgression-fine-apology-transgression cycle — is owned by everyone on its payroll.

    This equates to asking: how can pharma evolve socially across the enterprise? That’s the next challenge. It has very little to do with (post)marketing or comms, and everything to do with reorienting corporate strategy.

  6. I have long thought that pharma’s “ask your doctor about” chant short-changes both patients and HCPs. They’d be better off asking “how can we help?” without the bald commercial push. However, pharma’s corporate strategy is laser-focused on ROI, with short shrift given to the actual people that they do business with – those patients.

    I’ve had deep conversations about this topic with a number of people in pharma, all of whom would really like to shift that rigid ROI focus, but that aircraft carrier has a *very* slow rudder. The GSK fine might make that rudder even slower, which would be a shame. If pharma made an effort to have an authentic conversation (listen twice as much as you talk) with their marketplace, that would truly be a revolution. One I’d love to participate in.

    • Casey, thanks so much for your thoughts and for taking a moment to read and reply to the post. you raise good points about pharma marketing, and my perspective is that the principles of online marketing are seeking to undo 100 years of “how we always do it” marketing principles for many industries. but, really, DTC is not that old a concept here in the States and we need to teach the industry to move into a new comfort zone. I think, though, we need to get past marketing principles and practices to a more fundamental notion of social business – cultural and DNA changes that are even harder to broach but must be done with small, quick wins. Your point about the slow rudder is a very good one – which is why I think it’s not enough to turn the boats. I think we need to burn the boats and assemble a new fleet. would love your thoughts on next steps. stay tuned for a big announcement – I have something up my sleeve :-).

  7. Dear Gigi – thank you for this post. There are clearly immense benefits for pharma if using big data – ie, better understanding physician behaviors, giving them the information they WANT and NEED when they want it, enabling innovation, etc etc. Beyond just analyzing big data, pharma needs to start using social media to engage with their audience and customers to also generate big data metrics particular to their users.

    However, regarding Yunus’ definition — big pharma will never be a social business in the altruistic “Grameen Bank” version of the word, unless profits are no longer the driving motivator — for this to be the case, the board of directors, shareholders, and Executive Committee ALL need to be in the same mindset. Do you really see that happening anytime in the near future?

    • Nita – I really appreciate your comment and agree with your distinction that pharma may not live up to Yunus’ definition of social business – I think the Kim/Armano/MacDonald scenario is much more likely. your point about generating big data metrics is an interesting one – and gets to my notion about thinking beyond the current social platforms to a new social business world order. do you have thoughts on how/with whom pharma could partner to harness big data and generate more?

  8. Pingback: Viva the Healthcare (Social) Revolution! | Digital Health Journal

  9. Pingback: IIR ePharma Summit | Biotech Innovator

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