A view from the Center


Deloitte's Life Sciences & Health Care Blog

Infographic: Pharma adoption of social media: A prescription for physician engagement

There’s no debate that the growth of social media has changed the way that we, as consumers, access and share information. The proliferation of mHealth and other health care social platforms targeted at physicians suggests that this dynamic is no different for our doctors. With health care social media sites now reaching 50% of physicians1 and the user base for third-party physician social platforms growing rapidly, it is clear that the value perceived by physicians regarding interactions in the social space is increasing. Additionally, more than half of physicians polled in a recent survey expressed interest in interacting with pharma for practice-related purposes.2 Given the increased level of physician engagement in social, we are forced to wonder: What opportunities exist for pharma? What should pharma companies do to “win” in this new environment?

Pharma’s challenge

Despite physician interest in engaging, pharma has been generally slow to gain a foothold in the social space. This has likely been driven by a number of factors.

Even with new guidance around the rules of engagement, many pharma companies are still struggling to meet physicians’ social engagement needs. Pharma’s investments in the digital space typically do not show the same level of impact as other targeted efforts for physicians and consumers. For example, when compared to other health care and consumer apps in the Google Play store, pharma’s apps show a low number of overall downloads, specifically:

  • Pharma apps targeted at physicians: 100-5,000 downloads
  • Apps developed by third parties for physicians: 1M-5M downloads
  • Other consumer apps: Up to 5B downloads

This suggests that the information or format being offered by pharma is not as compelling as other competing sources and further explains why physicians still report that the majority of information they receive from pharma comes via traditional channels (e.g., sales reps, MSLs, direct mail, etc.). Either pharma has not invested heavily enough in emerging channels or is not offering information of value.

Additionally, trust appears to remain a big concern. The information that pharma companies provide has traditionally not been (and is still not) trusted. 75% of physicians surveyed indicated a lack of trust in information provided by pharma.3 When we asked physicians to comment on the criteria that would be necessary to engage with pharma companies on social forums, we received comments such as “transparency,” “information would need to be free of bias,” and “privacy – such that pharma companies weren’t monitoring the discussion.”

When we asked physicians who were not interested in interacting with pharma via social why this was so, we received feedback such as “unlikely to be meaningful unless the company official is someone who is trustworthy,” “I don’t trust the info in that sort of forum,” and “they are not objective. Need a neutral third party to have credibility.”

The rise of third-party platforms

While pharma has been generally slow to gain a foothold in the digital and social media space, third-party platforms have taken advantage of the opportunity to meet physicians’ needs. Specifically, Medscape (63%), Epocrates (57%), and Sermo (56%) were reported as the networks most commonly used among physicians for professional practice.4 These platforms enable physicians to access critical practice-related information and share insights and recommendations with their peers. Many physicians also see value in the data and capabilities they offer, which has continued to contribute to their growth. For example, Sermo has experienced over 90% growth in users over the past two years; the site now boasts over 382,000 US physicians.5 As trust in these platforms remains and switching costs increases as a result of the network effect, we believe that physicians will continue to engage in social channels via these third-party providers.

What opportunities remain for pharma?

In an effort to overcome the lack of physician trust in information provided directly by pharma and the strong foothold that third-party platforms have already established, pharma companies should consider partnering with established third-party providers as a means to make a stronger entry into the social space. Specifically, pharma should offer the proprietary clinical data and insights that drive interest but that others are not able to provide. When asked, 65% of physicians surveyed indicated interest in engaging with clinical data via social.6 Additionally, 84+% rank safety/efficacy, clinical guidelines, and long-term outcome data as influential or very influential in drug utilization decisions.7 Given the importance of this information, pharma should leverage its exclusive insights as a means to contribute in the social space.

Pharma can bring something new to the table that could not only entice potential social partners but also provide tangible, unbiased data to its physician customers. Through these interactions, pharma can become more knowledgeable about its customers through data that, if collected and used properly, can help strengthen engagement and targeting strategies moving forward. However, pharma should act now.  Further delays in pharma’s social strategy may lead to a loss of relevancy among its customers and a gap in relationships that others would be more than happy to fill.


1 comScore/Symphony HCP Measurement Solutions: http://ir.comscore.com/releasedetail.cfm?ReleaseID=724540
2 Primary Research – Survey Results from GLG (Q40)*

3 Primary research – Survey results from GLG (Q39)*
4 Primary research – Survey results from GLG (Q14, Q15a, Q21, Q22a)*
5 http://www.sermo.com/who-we-are/press-releases-view/1; Sermo website (http://www.sermo.com/what-is-sermo/overview)
6 Primary research – Survey results from GLG (Q40/41)*
7 Deloitte Center for Health Solutions 2014 Survey of US Physicians – Q745 (data are weighted)

*Survey methodology: For purposes of this research, Deloitte collaborated with Gerson Lehrman Group (GLG) to field an on-line survey of physicians across specialties to uncover how and why they engage via social channels for practice-related purposes. The survey included 50 physicians across geographies and age demographics.


Author bio

Chris is a principal in the Deloitte Consulting LLP Life Sciences and Health Care practice based in New York.  Chris has over 20 years of strategy and M&A consulting experience in the life sciences industry and his clients include many of the top 20 biopharmaceutical manufacturers. Chris is a frequent presenter at industry conferences including BIO, the Indiana Health Industry Forum, Med Ad News’ Building Better Brands conference, and the BioExec Institute. Chris has lectured at business schools including The Wharton School, the Ross School of the University of Michigan, the Yale School of Management, and the Haas School of the University of California, Berkeley. Chris is author of “Blueprint for the Brand,” published in Medical Marketing & Media, “To Friend or Not? New Insights about Social Networks in the Life Sciences Industry,” published by Deloitte Research, and “Big pharma: Business model choices for the new market,” published by Deloitte Development.