Facebook prescribes comments for pharma pages

    Starting next week, Facebook will take away a special privilege that it used to offer the mighty pharma industry. The step could be a game-changer, and it points to big issues about the industry’s presence on social media sites.

    Until now, pharma industry pages on Facebook could seek permission to disable commenting on their pages. No more, as of next Monday.

    In a statement to pharma industry representatives, Facebook officials said this was part of their mission to encourage an authentic dialogue between people and businesses.

    Comments are a pesky problem for this highly regulated industry, says pharma observer and blogger John Mack. “They are responsible for that content, it’s as if they wrote that content themselves,” he says.

    One difficulty is that people could mention adverse reactions to a drug, and the drug maker would then have the responsibility to track and report this reaction.

    Off-label uses a problem area

    Another possible problem centers on discussions about off-label uses of drugs–for example taking an anti-depressant to treat back pain without FDA approval.

    Mack says physicians and patients tend to chat about off-label uses in online forums. “If those conversations were happening on a site owned and operated by a pharmaceutical company,” said Mack, “then the FDA would cite them for essentially promoting off-label indications.”

    In response, some pharma-sponsored pages such as “ADHD Moms,” sponsored by Janssen Pharmaceuticals with 20,000 followers, will shut down.

    By contrast, the N.J.-based pharma company Sanofi Aventis will keep its Facebook presence on a page where moderated comments that observe stated rules have always been allowed.

    The Facebook change has caused grumbling on industry insider blogs. But concerns about pharma and social media go way beyond comments on Facebook. The strict regulations that govern traditional forms of drug advertisements–such as print or TV–get rather murky in this new arena. The industry has been rather cautious in embracing social media. Consumer advocates are worried that social media and phone apps will provide ever new ways for the industry to target customers in highly individualized ways.

    Watchdog warns of data mining

    Jeff Chester heads the Center for Digital Democracy, an online consumer watchdog. He says a lot of pharma pages look like self-help sites, or patient communities, where people can learn more about their specific problem.

    Users may like the opportunity to comment and engage with others, but Chester says this could be a masked data-mining operation.

    “I don’t think users understand that pharmaceutical companies can, in essence, listen in to everything you say and do and post,” said Chester

    Pharma representatives say their motives for having a presence are not sinister, but rather will prove advantageous to consumers.

    Dennis Urbaniak, who leads Sanofi’s U.S. diabetes unit, says social media conversations with consumers enable his company to develop better products.

    “It allows us to have a better feeling for what people are really looking for, for what some of their common questions and challenges are,” said Urbaniak. “It gives us a better view on putting forward a relevant solution as opposed to a solution that we think may work.”

    FDA working on issue for years

    The FDA has been working on guidelines for social media and pharma for years, but nothing has come forth.

    Blogger Mack says pharma companies are frustrated: “I think most people in the industry are completely tuning out the FDA as ever coming through with any guidelines,” he said. “The FDA was talking about how to regulate the pharma industry on the Internet way back in 1996.”

    The release of guidelines has been delayed repeatedly, and FDA officials say they cannot comment on when they will be finished. In the absence of FDA guidelines, representatives from leading pharmaceutical companies have formed a nonprofit called the Digital Health Coalition to seek an agreement on how to navigate this fast-changing realm, and interact with consumers in meaningful ways.

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