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Digital Pharma: AZ outlines its online principles

Published on 02/03/10 at 02:24pm

AstraZeneca says it has an obligation to use social media to help empower patients and prescribers to make informed decisions about its products.

The pharma company made the assertion in its submission to the FDA’s ongoing hearing into pharma’s use of social media and the internet.

AZ is one of a number of big pharma companies that chose to make a written submission to the US regulator before the official deadline passed on Sunday rather than present in person at the hearing’s first stage in November.

Other pharma companies that made written submissions include Abbott, Genentech and Merck, and they’re available here, but AZ was the only one to actively share its proposals online.

AZ says its feels constrained from doing too much with social media because of the current lack of rules and wants FDA guidance that would allow the tools to be used to “responsibly provide accurate, balanced information on medicines”.

VP of public policy and promotional affairs Bob Perkins said: "AstraZeneca understands the value of social media to engage key stakeholders in today's technology-driven world.

"While we have developed a corporate presence in the digital space, we believe it is increasingly important to participate in online channels to provide accurate and regulated information about our branded products in conversations with patients, caregivers, and health care providers."

Three types of online content

The company has proposed categorising social media content into three types, each of which would have their own operating rules. They are:

• Company-controlled and hosted online communications

These would include company product websites, but also company controlled content such as Facebook pages. AZ suggests these be covered by the letter and spirit of the FDA’s promotional rules for advertising.

• Company-controlled communications

These could include company adverts, such as banners for third party websites, but also company provided content such as online video and tools.

Where this includes drug information the company should provide “information and links to further information” on the product’s risks “to an extent and in a form that is appropriate to the size or other limitations of the site or forum”.

• Real-time, social media participation communications

To many this is the most important aspect of the hearing, and perhaps its thorniest one, and AZ goes into the more detail here than for its other content types. The company suggests that commenting and chatting on sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube should be dealt with in a similar way to existing regulation on face-to-face and telephone promotional activities.

“In that case, the FDA examines not just one part of the conversation but the entire conversation as a whole,” AstraZeneca says in the submission.

The company would like to see varying levels of accountability for its three types of content, but does not want to be held accountable for ‘independent communications’ it did not originally create, such as Google sidewiki entries.

The pharma company was the first in the industry to react to Google’s universal commenting tool, but its sites have continued to attract critical comments from the PharmaGossip blog.

AstraZeneca’s proposed social media principles

AstraZeneca also sets out five principles it believes should be at the heart of how any company uses social media:

• Truth and accuracy: Content must be truthful, balanced, accurate, and not misleading

• To be respectful: Respect the interests of patients, caregivers, and health care providers, particularly where related to matters of privacy and the primacy of the patient/physician relationship

• Protect and advance patient health: Facilitate patient access to quality information for use with their physician to improve their health and protect patients through encouraging accurate and timely reporting on medicine safety

• Transparency: Participation should at all times be entirely transparent to other participants as to the role of product sponsors as participants in online discussion

• Respect the views of others: Acknowledge that social media users have their own opinions and that, when they differ from those of the product sponsor, it is not the role of a product sponsor to censor or limit time, just to add the product sponsor's own views to the discussion

The company notes: "Without guidance, our activities are limited in a manner that we believe is not in the best interests of informed health care decision making. In our absence, consumers will turn to information sources that are not regulated and not always well informed."

Once initial guidance has been developed AstraZeneca also suggests the FDA considers regularly reviewing this to ensure it remains up-to-date.

AstraZeneca and social media

AZ is already using a number of social media channels and even has a page on its corporate website that details its various presences.

But the company admits in its FDA submission: “Currently, these uses are intentionally quite limited and often involve provide corporate, non-product information.”

Its initiatives to date include the Health Conversations corporate blog it launched in October, corporate and US-specific Twitter accounts, a Facebook page and the AstraZeneca Pharma YouTube channel. However, its My Asthma Story YouTube channel, though mentioned, is no longer online.

A global reach for US guidance?

AstraZeneca’s principles are aimed for “product sponsors in online education, communication, digital marketing, research or social media undertaken by United States-based business units with regards to activities directed specifically towards United States residents”.

However, it is widely expected that once published the FDA’s guidance will become de-facto rules for European pharma too, filling the vacuum of regulation over here.

Last year Bayer Schering Pharma’s Len Starnes picked the FDA hearing as his most significant online event for this blog’s A Year in Digital series, noting: “The decisions resulting from this hearing could well have global implications for the pharma industry.”

Now the official deadline for submissions has passed it’s wait-and-see time while the FDA starts sifting through the submissions and working up to producing guidance.

Dominic Tyer is web editor for Pharmafocus and and the author of the Digital Pharma blog He can be contacted via email, Twitter or LinkedIn.

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