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A new piece of legislation in the US could see the FDA update its rules on the relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and social media. But after several Pharma companies in the UK narrowly avoided breaching the ABPI Code of Practice, does a similar social media laws shake-up need to occur here?

The proposed bill looks set to make sure the FDA more clearly regulates “meaningful, truthful and non-misleading communication of product information on social media”.

Social media is helping to create better knowledge of health conditions, increased dialogue, connected support and more patient engagement. But at the same time Pharma companies need to be careful of what they place on the internet or allow to be posted on their social media pages.

“It is now the norm to go online and find needed information on just about anything,” claimed Rep. Billy Long, who introduced the legislation. “This bill would simply push the FDA to update its regulatory approach to communication to keep up with today’s technology.”

Doctors and medical practitioners are also benefitting from the rise in the use of social media, utilising these platforms to become more informed on patient care resources and for career development and networking. According to recent data, 60% of doctors claim social media improves the quality of care delivered to patients.

But what can and can’t pharmaceutical companies post on their social networks in the UK?

The European Commission’s Digital Agenda for Europe reported that in 2012, 41% of people looked online for health information more than once a month, and a further 40% did so less than once a month, a figure which has undoubtedly increased in the past few years.

But according to the International Comparative Legal Guides: “One of the biggest concerns for companies utilising social media is the risk of being held responsible for user-generated content over which they have no control. In the pharmaceutical context, there are additional concerns. Where a company sponsors, advertises on or instigates a website where prescription-only medicines are discussed there is a high risk that regulators may deem the company to be responsible for all content on that website, whether or not it was generated by the company.”

In the UK, the ABPI’s Code of Practice states the promotional material about prescription only medicines directed to a UK audience which is provided on the Internet must comply with all relevant requirements of the Code. In December 2014, AstraZeneca narrowly avoided breaching the Code when they sent out a tweet reading: “Approximately 30% of women with early breast cancer will develop advanced or metastatic breast cancer”.  With survival rates for early breast cancer above 98%, the company were called out on their tweet, which could cause unnecessary worry to women who had recently been diagnosed with the disease. However, the ABPI found that AZ hadn’t breached the Code due to their use of the term “approximately”.

Abbott also recently came undone when photographs of one of their products were uploaded on a photographer’s Facebook page. As the company had consented to the use of the photographs on the social media page, it was held responsible for their use. To combat issues like this, many Pharma companies have disabled the ability to comment on certain videos or upload content to their social media pages. While preventing companies from facing a breach of guidelines, these blocks also decrease the chance of social interactions between Pharma companies and their audience, something which the industry needs to improve upon on in this digital era.

With cases like these it would appear that maybe social media rules in the UK need to be updated the Pharma industry, or at least made clearer to understand.

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