From The Editor | May 11, 2018

How Social Media Can Support #Biosimilars

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By Anna Rose Welch, Editor, Biosimilar Development
Follow Me On Twitter @AnnaRoseWelch

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As many of you are likely aware by now, at the CBI Annual Biosimilars Summit this past January, I joined forces with Eric Sjogren, formerly of Merck, to present on a series of predictions made at the end of the 2017 conference. Though a handful of the predictions we addressed were straight-and-narrow, there were a few we couldn’t easily tackle given our innate lack of omniscience. (Sigh.) One of these harder-to-answer predictions was that patients would turn to their doctors and social media more frequently to learn about biosimilars. Though Sjogren and I couldn’t say whether this was true or false, we did remark that it’s an interesting age for social media in the pharma space — and this certainly extends into biosimilars as well.   

When I first entered the pharma world as an editor a few years ago, there were a number of ongoing conversations about how pharma companies could use social media to help with patient engagement, trial recruitment, education, and even post-marketing surveillance. As patients become more engaged in their treatments — and in many cases seek out a community on social media — it makes sense this would be a valuable way to reach them. And, according to a recent research report, pharma’s attempts to refine its social media efforts are having a positive effect.

In March 2018, Ogilvy published “The Social Check-up 2018: Pharma in the Social Space,” revealing that a company doesn’t need a huge number of posts on a social platform to see greater engagement or social community growth. In fact, it turns out the companies with the highest overall social engagement — Novo Nordisk, J&J, and Novartis — did not necessarily have the highest number of posts throughout 2017. Instead, they created certain types of posts that helped improve their reception. For instance, the most engaging posts targeted a specific therapeutic area, highlighted the human aspect of the company, or joined in larger conversations around awareness campaigns (e.g., World Cancer Day or Earth Day).

Biosimilar Goings-On In The Social Media Sphere

Although I’m a member of the millennial generation which is supposed to be quite fluent in social media, my skills rarely extend beyond posting or retweeting poems, biosimilar news/articles, and cat videos. (My Twitter profile is a strange place for all involved.) But in the countless moments I’ve spent scrolling through social media platforms, a few ways they’re being used by pharma companies, organizations, and patients have caught my eye. Though they aren’t all posts about biosimilars, I think they’re worth calling attention to as potential strategies for biosimilar companies and other stakeholders.

Facebook: According to Ogilvy’s research, Facebook was actually where pharma companies saw the greatest engagement. (Facebook posts earned an average of 524 engagements. YouTube came in the lowest with three.) I can’t specifically pinpoint a biosimilar-related effort on Facebook. But an article in FiercePharma a few weeks ago caught my eye because of how one company chose to use the Facebook Live function. Boehringer Ingelheim is currently working to expand the label of its idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) treatment Ofev to treat some patients with scleroderma. To bolster education on the condition, the company launched a campaign called “More than Scleroderma — The Inside Story”  on its website, featuring stories and photos of patients impacted by the disease. But to bolster education about the disease, the company also Facebook Live-streamed a patient-based panel discussion (related to their campaign) that took place at a European conference. I’ve often wondered about the value of Facebook Live in disseminating information — especially if it was used to stream portions of a patient access panel (or a specific “for the patients” educational panel) at a biosimilar conference to increase access and spread knowledge about biosimilars or their therapeutic areas.

Twitter: I could, of course, discuss the fact that many pharma companies, industry organizations, and patient groups have Twitter handles. Biosimilar conferences have hashtags for their events so people tweeting at the conference (or following from afar) are able to keep up. I equip a majority of the articles I post with a biosimilar hashtag (#biosimilars) in case someone is searching Twitter for biosimilar articles. In the past, Twitter has also been the place where companies have taken a stance on a key issue — for instance, Merck’s CEO announced his resignation from the president’s manufacturing council last year, and Allergan’s Brett Saunders tweeted his “social contract” to keep annual price increases below 10 percent. But I would argue the true winner of the pharma Twitter universe has been the FDA’s efforts. Since taking the helm, Scott Gottlieb has been a regular addition to my news feed, whether he’s announcing new guidances, new initiatives, drug approvals, or issues the FDA plans to take a stance on or solve. Overall, I’d argue the FDA has never been more “present” than it is today, and I think a large part of that has to do with its presence on Twitter. Though Ogilvy’s social media study found Twitter was on the lower end of the engagement spectrum for pharma (average of 61 engagements per post), these efforts to amplify the FDA’s voice are a benefit for the biosimilar industry in particular. As we continue to face safety and efficacy questions in this space, I’ve wondered if those fears aren’t driven by an inherent distrust of the regulatory bodies making those decisions. To see the agency sharing (albeit bite-sized) pieces of information on Twitter about the work being done ensures the FDA doesn’t remain a large, anonymous, siloed body.

Reddit: Since I don’t use this platform, I know very little about it except that it enables members of the Internet community to strike up dialogue on pretty much any topic — regardless of how obscure it may be. (To many people, a thread about biosimilars is a great example of one of those obscure conversations.) I wouldn’t have even thought about it as an educational tool for biosimilars. But in keeping with their ongoing social media blaze, the FDA turned to Reddit (specifically the pharmacy subreddit) a few weeks ago to host a biosimilar Q&A. (And it turns out the FDA wasn’t the first to bring biosimilars into the wacky world of Reddit — I also found a biosimilar-related Q&A thread published by a chemist working in the field of biosimilars.) If you read through the FDA’s lengthy thread, there are a wide variety of questions posed about what biosimilars are, how they’re regulated, ongoing legal issues, interchangeability, and pricing schemes — to name a few. I applaud the FDA for venturing into this communication channel. In fact, I’d be interested to learn more about what led them to this platform. Was it simply to support the agency’s ongoing efforts to bolster its transparency and approachability, or were there other factors?

Instagram: I’d argue this is one of the most interesting platforms for biosimilar makers to check out. According to Ogilvy, this social channel poses great opportunities for companies looking to boost their social engagement moving forward (but only if they have a “visually compelling story to tell.”) But if we step away from the use of social media as a tool for a company to educate or engage stakeholders, I’d argue Instagram is a great tool for showing how biosimilars are being used and experienced in the real world. Simply by searching the terms “Inflectra” or “Benepali,” you will find pictures of people from all over the world sitting at IVs or injecting themselves with auto injectors filled with biosimilars they’ve termed “life elixirs” or “magical liquid.” (One of my favorite biosimilar posts was a photo of a Benepali auto-injector sitting next to a plate of a triple-chocolate cookie dough bake topped with custard. A winning combination, if I do say so myself.) What I found most interesting was the amount of engagement amongst patients in the comments on some of these posts. There are followers offering well-wishes and encouragement, asking questions about the treatment, or sharing their own experiences with the condition or treatment at hand. Of course, there are a few harder posts to see — ones that describe an ineffective switch to a biosimilar or a lack of efficacy. But most notable is that the majority of posts mentioning the biosimilar are depictions of patients living with and confronting their conditions. Right now, those of us in the industry are fighting to get through certain industry politics and fear-mongering to enable greater access. But what these images tell me is that, at the end of the day, patients (at least on the surface level) are putting their faith in and integrating biosimilars into their treatment regimens — just as they would an innovator biologic. There’s no drama or politics in these photos, but there is hope. One post I cannot get out of my mind was of a young woman smiling after receiving her first treatment, accompanied by one unforgettable phrase: “I am normal!”

These are just a few of the many ways I’m sure social media has been used in the pharma space. Those of you who are social media aficionados in companies, no doubt, will continue to creatively engage patients on a number of different platforms. But I was also drawn to this topic given the conversation I had recently with Erin Federman, an expert from Mylan. As we discussed, there is a need to ensure that biosimilar policies and the discussions about biosimilars remain informed by the human aspect. Social media can provide a more human element to the work pharma companies and regulatory agencies do all day, as well as provide all of you working in the pharma industry with insights into what your patients care about most.