What is to come in 2012?

It’s hard to believe, but another year is almost over. Christmas is only a few days a way, and a week after that, we’ll flip the calendar to 2012.

What will happen in the year to come in communication? In healthcare? In public relations? What new technology (or technologies) will emerge? Which existing technologies will be relegated to the dustbin of history, like coin-operated pay phones? What great advances will happen in healthcare and healthcare delivery? Which organization will build a strong foundation for years to come with strong, carefully planned and executed public relations efforts? Which organizations will be tarnished by bungling their public relations, particularly in a crisis situation?

We can ask those questions at this time every year. But here are some unique ones to think about as 2011 comes to a close:

1. Will Google+ seriously challenge Facebook? I was not impressed with it when I first got on, and I still use it only rarely. But it does appear to slowly be catching on. Will it become real competition for Facebook in 2012?

2. Will organizations reevaluate and improve their crisis communication plans? We saw the tattoo scandal at Ohio State and the horrible sexual molestation scandal at Penn State – they were just two examples this year of poor crisis PR. It’s an area to which many organizations do not devote sufficient resources or planning, and they can and have paid a huge price for that. Hopefully this year’s prominent crisis PR disasters taught them a lesson.

3. Will more pharmaceutical companies get serious about social media, even with no FDA guidance on the horizon? One of my favorite reads in the area of pharmaceutical marketing – Rich Meyer’s World of DTC Marketing blog – praised Sanofi’s “Why Insulin?” Social Media campaign as an example of how pharma companies can creatively and effectively use Social Media while not running afoul of the FDA. With no specific FDA guidance likely to come anytime soon, pharma companies can and should learn from Sanofi’s example. Will they? The cutbacks to marketing that many pharma companies made this year won’t help any.

4. Which Presidential candidate will do the best job crafting and selling his/her story? Next year will be a presidential election year (the Iowa Caucus is on Jan. 3!). Which candidate will put forth the best story? Which candidate will be the most effective at selling that story? And how much of an impact will the stories told by PACs and outside groups – who were greatly enabled by last year’s Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court – have on the election? While I do find the partisan bickering in Washington to be tiresome, I do find campaigns themselves to be fascinating, and the upcoming election will definitely be fascinating, no matter which side you want to win.

That’s all for me in 2011. It’s been an interesting year for me in many ways – finishing my masters degree, helping build a start-up pharmaceutical company into a tangible product that could attract a merger with a major pharmaceutical company and now looking for the next opportunity.  I leave you with what, in my opinion, is an underrated holiday song from an underrated movie. Happy Holidays, and all the best for 2012.

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Are the obstacles to hospitals using Social Media really “myths?”

The Mayo Clinic and Ragan recently held their third annual Health Care Social Media summit. And among the presenters was popular writer and Social Media expert Shel Holtz, who debunked the myths that he says keep hospitals from utilizing Social Media.

I highly respect Mr. Holtz’s opinion, but I believe it is a stretch to call them myths. They are certainly obstacles hospitals can and should overcome. But they are legitimate obstacles.

Holtz specifically mentions the possible negative effect on workplace productivity, the risks of exposing the hospital’s networks to viruses and malware, HIPAA concerns and consuming the hospital’s bandwith. You can definitely overcome those obstacles by investing in sound IT infrastructure and putting clear guidelines in place and strictly enforcing them. Yes, hospitals can and do exaggerate the dangers of these potential pitfalls. But to call them myths is a similar exaggeration. Just ask any hospital that has been slapped with a fine and/or a lawsuit for revealing a patient’s identity on Social Media, however unintentionally.

Another reason hospitals, particularly religious ministry hospitals, block Social Media are ethical concerns. This was the case at one hospital I worked for, which is run by the Sisters of Mercy, a Roman Catholic religious order. Such institutions are not only providing healthcare, they are also doing so in the context of their religion’s principles and values. While we may not agree with another religion’s beliefs, how can we expect a hospital supported by a religion to not adhere to that religion’s beliefs?

Are there other reasons you can think of for why more hospitals aren’t using Social Media? Would you consider those reasons to be myths?

Hospitals, healthcare providers should be smartphone-friendly

Last night, on the weekly Health Communication Social Media tweetchat, one of the discussion topics was the impact of the increased proliferation of smartphones in regards to health communication. If it is an opportunity, how can hospitals and providers tap into it? If it is a potential problem, what can they do about it?

I take the former view. With 54% of all mobile phone sales in the U.S. now being for smartphones, hospitals and healthcare providers need to become smartphone-friendly.

They don’t necessarily need to go out and develop their own apps for smartphones, though that’s something they should consider if they find it is the best way to reach their patients. But hospitals and larger medical practices should, as a start, build smartphone-optimized versions of their websites.

I’ve been a smartphone user for a few years now. If I’m away from my computer, it makes it relatively easy to look up information online. But websites that are not smartphone-optimized take a long time to load and are difficult to view on smartphone screens. You may also not be able to use all the features of the website on your smartphone.

I can read the New York Times in a smartphone-friendly format. Why shouldn’t I be able to get information on hospitals or healthcare providers the same way?

I understand that, especially in these difficult economic times, this may be beyond the budget of smaller practices. And even if they could financially afford it, it may not make business sense if its customers/patients don’t use smartphones heavily. After all, any business purchase decision has to provide some kind of a return.

But the larger practices, hospitals and healthcare systems that serve large numbers of people should do this. For them, it does not require that large of an investment. And it would help them better reach a public that will only increase its usage of smartphones.

What do you think?

Clinical trial sponsors, investigators must now account for social media in study designs

The Pink Sheet is a newsletter on the pharmaceutical industry read by many drug manufacturers. One recent issue had a report discussing the impact of Social Media, such as Facebook, on the design and execution of clinical trials.

You can read the whole story here: Social Networks in Clinical Trial Design

Clinical trials, in particular the all-important Phase 3 Pivotal trials, cost many millions of dollars to execute. They are designed meticulously, especially when it comes to blinding and randomization controls. Study subjects can’t know whether they took the study drug, the placebo (or, if applicable, the comparative drug) until after the trial is completed. If they did, they might not react naturally or adhere to the study protocol, and the trial results could be compromised.

Derrick Gingery reports:

Craig Lipset, Pfizer senior director in clinical research, said patients are using chat rooms and forums directed at specific diseases, in some cases talking about the clinical trials in which they are participating and their experiences with the study drugs. The online talk could threaten a trial’s blinding and randomization, especially as patients are more able to interact with other trial participants, he noted.

At the same time, as Lipset says later in the story, asking clinical trial subjects to refrain from using Social Media is not realistic. Recruiting subjects for clinical trials and getting them to follow existing protocols is hard enough as it is. So trial sponsors and investigators need to account for these tools in designing clinical trials.

Lipset’s employer, Pfizer, took a step in this direction this past June by conducting a virtual clinical trial for the long-acting formulation of Detrol LA. Other drug sponsors, investigators and CROs (contract research organizations) will likewise need to design clinical trials with Social Media in mind.

At the same time, researchers and pharmaceutical companies can also use Social Media to their advantage. While comments on a Facebook page or an internet message board are not statistically reliable or a substitute for the FDA’s adverse events reporting guidelines, they can provide hints of problems  before they become catastrophic public relations disasters. On a more positive note, sponsors can, as Gingery reports, tap into social media to recruit subjects for clinical trials.

 

Bachmann vaccine furor shows importance of getting out in front of misinformation

Politicians will say almost anything if they think it will help them win their next election. But in Rep. Michelle Bachmann’s quest to win the Republican nomination for President, she re-hashed an old falsehood last week – one that set off a furor in the medical community and illustrates the importance of getting out in front of misinformation in your field.

One of the issues Texas Governor Rick Perry is defending is a vaccination program he instituted in Texas schools in 2007. Sixth grade girls received Merck & Co.’s Gardasil vaccine to prevent Human papillomavirus (HPV), an STD which is linked to cervical and other types of cancers. The candidates’ criticisms have ranged from whether government should force children to have vaccinations to whether or not Perry ordered the program to get a political donation (according to the Washington Post, Merck has made nearly $30,000 in donations to Perry since) to whether getting the vaccine encourages girls to have sex prematurely.

Where the firestorm was really ignited, however, was in a TV interview Bachmann (R-MN) gave the morning after last week’s Republican debate in Florida. In the interview, Bachmann said:

“[The vaccine] comes with some very significant consequences. There’s a woman who came up crying to me tonight after the debate. She said her daughter was given that vaccine. She told me her daughter suffered mental retardation as a result of that vaccine.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics swiftly moved to debunk Bachmann’s quote, saying in a statement “There is absolutely no scientific validity to this statement. Since the vaccine has been introduced, more than 35 million doses have been administered, and it has an excellent safety record.” And there was criticism of Bachmann in the media. But she had already perpetuated the myth, one that plays to a skepticism many already have of vaccinations, and one already fueled by other prominent figures (such as Jenny McCarthy).

Now the medical community is not only fighting a myth, but a myth that makes sense to a lot of people based on what they already believe to be true, and one that was espoused by a prominent figure at that. And that is the hardest type of myth to fight.

The communications lesson here for any organization: get your message out there first, make your message as clear and easy to understand as possible, and keep shouting it. Don’t leave any kind of void for your “opponents” to fill, because they will. Use every communications tool that will reach your target audience to accomplish this.

In the case of the medical community, physicians should present the research they read about in Pediatrics to their patients and others in a more accessible, easier-to-understand form. Social Media is a great way to do this, especially since health care consumers are increasingly turning to these tools for health information as it is. But the most important thing is to be proactive. If the patient shows up in the office questioning the benefits of vaccines, the physician is already behind the 8-ball.

Study: Pharma journal ads are often not FDA-compliant

The journal PLoS One released a study yesterday on the adherence of pharmaceutical advertising in medical journals to the FDA’s guidelines. And the findings suggest that there may be a problem with the FDA’s regulations regarding drug advertising.

According to the study, less than 20% of the advertisements studied were completely compliant with FDA regulations. In addition, nearly half of the 89 advertisements from November 2008 issues of leading U.S. biomedical journals were non-compliant with at least one of the FDA’s descriptions of bias and a third were found to be possibly non-compliant due to incomplete information.

The full report on the study is available here.

I admit that 89 advertisements isn’t a very large sample size. And determining whether something is FDA-compliant or not is a somewhat subjective process. But these figures suggest that the FDA may need to make its regulations of drug advertising simpler and easier to understand.

The large pharmaceutical companies have staffs dedicated to ensuring compliance with the regulations put forth and enforced by DDMAC, the FDA sub-agency that governs this area. Even the smaller companies take great care to stay in compliance. They thoroughly vet all advertising and other promotional materials. Then they vet them again, and even more times still, before they go out in the public domain. With fines of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars on the line, you don’t want to mess around with this.

Yet in spite of all that, a sizable majority of ads appear to be non-compliant. And this makes me wonder if the FDA should make its regulations clearer and more concise. I’m all for the FDA requiring drug ads to be responsible, accurate, truthful and fair and balanced. But all the regulations in the world do no good if companies can’t comply with them.

I believe that content should have what I call “the 4 Cs:” it should be clear, compelling, complete and concise. No one expects government regulations to be compelling (that’s not what regulation is for after all!). But it would only help drug manufacturers and marketers if those regulations were clear, complete and concise. Regulate what needs to be regulated, but make the regulations as clear and simple as possible.

With Social Media, one size does NOT fit all

This past Sunday, on the weekly Healthcare Social Media tweet chat, we discussed whether or not patients need to find their own way with Social Media. Is there a right way for every patient, provider or hospital to use Social Media?

The answer to that question is a resounding NO.

One size does not fit all with Social Media. Sure, there are some general guidelines people (and certainly for providers and hospitals) should or must follow. But that’s the key – they’re general. What works specifically for one entity isn’t guaranteed to work for another, no matter how similar they appear to be. This is true for all fields.

In the case of healthcare patients, you particularly need to let them find their own way. Not everyone has the same degree of comfort in sharing information about their health over Social Media. For various reasons, not everyone can share the same information over Social Media. And people have different degrees of comfort using these new tools at all. As with any tool, Social Media can backfire if you don’t know what you’re doing with it.

Similarly, not all healthcare providers can or should use Social Media the exact same way. Their patients are different, with unique needs and characteristics.

Think of it this way: if you were a public relations professional pitching a story for a pharmaceutical company in the Philadelphia area, you wouldn’t pitch the story to the Doylestown (Pa.) Intelligencer or the Philadelphia Inquirer the same way you’d pitch it to Drug Topics. Or, to use a non-PR example, you don’t tell a story to a 4-year-old child the exact same way you’d tell it to a 30-year-old adult.

When working with clients, agencies should help them develop specific plans tailored to their specific needs, then teach them how to execute those plans. Whether you hire an agency to help you or go completely on your own, you need to carefully develop and execute your own strategy, a strategy based on methodical research of your customers or patients, the market you serve and your competition. A generic, one-size-fits-all approach is not only lazy, but a recipe for failure.

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