“Fear, anger and comfort drive patients to social media”

“Fear, anger and  comfort drive patients  to social media”

Fake news has always been a problem in the media sector. But never has it been as big a challenge as it is in the current social media era, especially on the topics of health and pharmaceuticals. Misinformation, powered by the latest technology, spreads like wildfire. Since almost all big media houses maintain social media pages which are followed by millions of people, they can easily convince innocent minds with corrupt or unchecked news. Apart from lay readers, the organisations which provide healthcare services and solutions are often the biggest victims of such misleading and false information. For such organisations, negative news can be a huge problem, and they are often forced to resort to high-risk reputation management exercises. It is in this context that technologies and tools that monitor and manage people’s perceptions and emotions on social media gain significance. While this trend is common to several industries, what makes its use by the pharma and medical industry unique is the rather complicated structure of the healthcare industry itself. For this reason, the technology used to analyze market responses for healthcare products is different from that used to analyze the response to a fashion brand or a home appliance. This is because capturing the pulse of the healthcare market involves taking into account the feedback and reactions from various stakeholders, including doctors, patients, trade channels, the media and the general public. Despite such challenges, pharma and healthcare companies can ill afford to ignore social media chatter chatter, particularly during a global pandemic, avers Dr Ranjit Nair, Founder & Chief Executive Officer, Germin8 Solutions Pvt Ltd (Germin8) —a Big Data analytics company focused on AI-based social media research and analysis, in this month’s Straight Talk with Editor C H Unnikrishnan. Edited excerpts:

What are the challenges in measuring the market response in sectors like pharma and healthcare where a third party is often the decision-maker? How is it different from other sectors?

As you rightly said, the pharmaceutical sector has some interesting complications as far as our work is concerned. It is interesting because, one; the decision-maker is usually different from the consumer and there are other important stakeholders as well. There is a doctor, who prescribes the drug, a caregiver who administers the treatment, a pharmacist, who could say that the particular brand is not available and there is a substitute, and the patient who consumes the drug. So, each and every stakeholder has a role to play. The other complication is that the pharmaceutical sector is the most regulated one and there are several limitations on what these companies can do to promote their brands.

The third factor is that the repercussion of any negative instance, even if it is a single isolated case, is much wider in the pharma and healthcare sector. The idea behind Germin8 is to help companies understand what the consumers and various other stakeholders are talking about them or their products in the public space. This could be the general impression about a company or its products, a patient’s experience with his/her treatment or a particular drug, or it could be an opinion of an influential doctor. So, we are able to pick up the conversations that are happening in social media in real-time and make sense out of them to help the marketing teams or the corporate communication teams of these respective organisations. As far as the medical industry is concerned, even the media plays a great role to influence the market. So, picking up the conversations of these multiple stakeholders and interpreting them for taking meaningful decisions is key in the pharma and healthcare sector.

You spoke about social media-driven market actions earlier such as “peer-to-peer prescription” of medicines. How is it working and what are the flip sides?

This peer-to-peer recommendation of medicines and treatments have been happening even earlier. But now with social media, it has become much easier and the trend has become more prevalent. However, patients might or should consult a doctor before taking a decision ultimately, asking him/her whether this or that drug and procedure, which was recommended by a friend
or someone on social media or happened to be seen on social media, can/cannot be used or not. In this case, it’s the doctor who takes the decision. So that way, there is no harm. But it is useful information for the medical or pharmaceutical companies as they get an idea of the market perception about their products or services and can act upon it by sharing relevant information with the concerned doctor or the consumer. The companies can also form market strategies based on such general perceptions, whether it is good or bad.

What are the kinds of ontologies that rightly work in the case of pharmaceuticals?

As I said earlier, there are different stakeholders in this market segment, such as the doctor and the caregiver, the pharmacist, the patient, drug company and the news media. We build a different ontology for different stakeholders as each of them have a different set of experiences and perspectives and all these are critical and their voices are equally important to create the overall perception that the brand owners can utilise. For instance, patients would discuss their experience with diseases, symptoms and other issues, the effects of the treatment that they have undergone and a lot about the costs and drug purchase experience etc. At the same time, the doctors will have their own takes about their experience with the drugs that they prescribe, their efficacy and side effects and the pricing that is affordable to their patient, availability etc. This way, each stakeholders’ perception, experience, concerns, and/or recommendations shared on social media are captured for developing different ontologies. This intelligence, including the media perception about the companies, the management and the brand—especially adverse news, is used for reputation management by the organisations. Similarly, it also helps in devisingcommunity management activities, wherein drug companies want to engage with the patients in different disease segments by observing their expressions and emotions from social media space. The third type of market intelligence that we derive from social media is to help organisations in their strategies on new launches and positioning for brands in a new market or in a new therapy area. This is captured from what the patients, doctors and other stakeholders are saying about the respective disease, therapies, competitors’ brands and adverse events, among others. Indeed, online market research has also helped to substantially reduce the cost of market research for the organisations.

In your observation, what are the factors that drive patients to social media to share their experience?

One of the most common reasons for patients to come to online platforms or social media is to know things from others who have had similar experiences to theirs. Usually, these patients are looking for advice on a similar condition or disease. People who want to undergo similar treatment or medication also prefer social media platforms to share their problems and seek help from their contacts as they are worried and there is an element of anxiety, which leads the people to seek support from their peers. So, it is predominantly the fear factor that drives patients to networking sites or other social media channels. The other reason is some kind of anger following a bad experience with companies or products as they want to express their sentiments and expose the companies. So, in the first category, patients do share their stories and also do self-diagnosis and drug or treatment prescriptions. We have also witnessed many other aspects of social media – for instance, peer-to-peer prescribing of medicines; rise of anti-vaccine sentiments and so on, as it gives patients the comfort of sharing and seeking within a commonly related network platform.

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