How many times do concerned co-workers, friends or family members say they have this or that medical condition because they've looked up their "symptoms" on the Internet only to later learn from their doctor that it's not the case.

Or, heard about a treatment that is "really effective" because someone read about it on the Internet.

Consumers now turn to the Internet as their primary source of health information. One recent study reported 72% of Internet users looked online for health information within the past year. People are exchanging stories about health to help understand what is happening to them and their loved ones right now and what might lie ahead.

As healthcare communicators, our core business is reaching and engaging people where they seek health information.

Despite years of experience that show social interactions play a key role in helping people better manage their health, there is understandably some hesitancy from the healthcare industry to chart its own course in social media.

According to an IMS report, only half of the top 25 pharmaceutical manufacturers have active social media engagement with patients on healthcare-related topics. Online resources bring healthcare into peoples' homes every day and provide valuable peer-to-peer support. Ensuring the accuracy of that information is now more important than ever.

ims institute
Source: IMS Institute

Is information accurate and who is responsible for its accuracy?

Social media raises issues for us that peers in other industries don't face, mainly due to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's oversight.

It carefully controls labeling, advertisement, and promotion for drugs and devices before clearance.

The Internet has complicated those regulations. Social media has made it easier to quickly find information about medical conditions and treatment options but also to access information beyond what is on any drug label.

Social media tools host online content that is primarily created and published by users other than the intellectual property owner or product manufacturer; much of this content, therefore, may not be accurate.

The FDA plays an important role in protecting public health and recently provided parameters for PR firms on the acceptable promotion of regulated medical products on social media and other Internet channels.

These include how to present risk-and-benefit information on social media that rely on character-limited messages such as Twitter.

FDA also provided guidance on how drug and device companies can counter misinformation spread by critics or other users on third-party sites such as Facebook and Wikipedia. This draft guidance doesn't lighten the regulatory burden – it just makes it more feasible.

To many outside healthcare, it has always been puzzling as to why promotional material includes information that a sleep medication "may cause drowsiness" or an erectile dysfunction medicine "may cause an erection lasting longer than four hours" when that is precisely why someone takes those medications.

Rx Cos. must be part of social conversation and correct misinformation

Inaction is not the answer. Life-changing technology and groundbreaking medical advances are improving health and saving lives every day. We have a responsibility to make accurate information available

While critics will debate whether the FDA guidelines violate free speech rights under the First Amendment or whether the agency is really up on the realities of social media, we can't ignore those who are actively using social media to obtain and share health information. We must stay consistent with the FDA's position on social media but also remember the age-old guidelines of regulated promotion and use common sense:

  • Follow the time-tested philosophy that "if you wouldn't say it offline, don't say it online" and always use your best judgment in social media communications.
  • Be aware of your individual association with the company and/or its clients in online social networks; there is no longer a clear boundary between work life and personal life.
  • Consider this carefully when posting on Twitter, a blog, Facebook or YouTube as it is a public comment in a public space.
  • Don't lose sight of the fact that using social media to advance public health prevails over other purposes, including marketing, branding and relationship-building.

Regardless of the online source used to communicate, public health is best served by clear, accurate, truthful and non-misleading information about all medicines and devices.

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Timothy Bird is president & COO of Cooney/Waters Group, a family of strategic communications companies focused exclusively on healthcare.