Using Social Media To Improve Pharma Clinical Recruitment and More

Why Dr. Younes Uses Social Media (Bunny Ellerin) offers a great example of the broader potential of social media beyond simply a pharma marketer’s focus on building patient dialogue and retention or to keep current with old and new friends.

The story begins with Dr. Younes from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center with his recent blog Medicine and Social Media: Why do I tweet?

“Two years ago, I decided to experiment with social media. I have a strong interest in the treatment of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a rare type of human cancer that affects approximately 8,600 patients per year in the United States. With a cure rate of 75%, it was very challenging to get pharmaceutical companies interested in developing new therapies for this small patient population. Furthermore, because of the limited pool of patients who are eligible for experimental therapy, these trials traditionally never enrolled patients in a timely manner.”

Then Dr Younes secured four IRB approved trials, and needed to enroll patients and tried many recruiting methods… 

“…But ultimately, the biggest impact came from a social media outlet: YouTube. The online version of Conquest included a YouTube video link that covered our clinical and translational efforts to improve the treatment outcome of patients with relapsed Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In a few months, thousands watched the video, which was associated with a surge in patient referrals to our clinic. Four years ago we used to enroll a maximum of 20 patients per year with relapsed Hodgkin’s lymphoma on clinical trials. We now enroll approximately 80 patients per year, an unprecedented number for any single institution. Results from these trials are rapidly reported in national and international meetings, and all of a sudden a momentum was created that hope is on the horizon for these patients who were neglected for almost three decades.”

“With this outcome in mind, I recently started to tweet “, says Dr Younes…”(To my delight, M. D. Anderson realized the importance of these communication tools and established sites on Facebook and Twitter.)… I tweet short phrases that include web links to blogs, clinical trials or scientific discoveries that may be important to the public. To me, this is not a tool to make new friends or to chat, but rather a one-way communication strategy to spread information from reliable sources directly to the public.”

On the national level, the use of social media and twitter among doctors is growing, and moving beyond the “one-way” communications that Dr. Younes is using. In a recent New York Times article Medicine in the Age of Twitter, adoption of social media is building among physicians as a way to provide faster, better information and care to patients.

According to Dr. Khozin (one of the MDs featured in the NYT article) in his blog  Doctors, Patients and Twitter,  “I use social media, as embedded into my practice’s secure EMR/PHR platform, for 2 main reasons:

  1. Chronic disease management. I’m actively pursuing the use of secure email, video conferencing, and instant messaging to ensure continuity of care between office visits and help my patients better manage their chronic diseases. Getting patients engaged in the process of care can make them become active and empowered participants in their own care.
  2. Care coordination. I’m exploring the uses of social media for care coordination. In this context, the patient is placed at the center with their care team around them. All members of the care team, being on the same platform, have access to the same information with seamless (and structured) streams of patient-to-provider and provider-to-provider health information exchange.”

Regarding the issues surrounding the use of Twitter to communicate with patients. Dr Khozin’s thoughts are as follows:

  • Twitter is a great tool for physicians to disseminate information and their expertise on relevant and timely medical topics.
  • Twitter is not a secure platform where patients’ protected health information (PHI) can be discussed freely. This seems obvious, but it appears that some people think they may soon be able to interact with doctors on Twitter for their medical issues. This is not a realistic, or even legal, expectation. Doctor-patient interactions should ideally be confined to highly secure online platforms and the doctor’s office.

Can the growing adoption and experimentation of physician use of social media platforms help produce greater “patient-centered” care?

The answer should be an overwhelming YES given that patient-centered care generally includes at least the following three principles:

  • Communication between doctors and patients that is meaningful
  • Partnership of physician-patient (and their family)
  • Focus beyond specific health conditions, on healthy promotion and lifestyles

The question becomes, how can we, as pharma marketers, help facilitate greater physician use of social media to continue to improve patient-centered care? To help recruit for important clinical trials or to provide additional education for patients and their families, etc.?

Art Credit: Courtney Justice/The Cournell Group/Free Stethoscope Clip Art Provided by