For a fully rounded picture on health issues you need to have the involvement of pharmaceutical and other healthcare companies that are not only manufacturing the products and services that currently impact people's health, but that are also conducting the R&D that will hopefully lead to new solutions in the future.
It follows then that if the government's public health mission is to enable individuals to lead healthy lives and make good decisions for their care, it is crucial that healthcare companies participate and engage in social media with a goal of facilitating the more informed healthcare decisions.
Excluding manufacturers or brands from social media impoverishes the discussion and runs the real risk of individuals and organizations sharing inaccurate information in an unbalanced way. So the real question isn't whether pharma should participate in social media, but rather how?
In the rush to play in the "social space," some marketers have failed to grasp the simple reality that ultimately social media is not about advertising, and it's not about marketing. It's about sharing the insight, information and tools that can help people make better decisions.
In that vein, running advertising in social areas or building one-way communication platforms (think Facebook "Fan" pages or YouTube channels with commenting turned off) is no more social than a billboard. So the real need is to be able to participate in conversations and provide value to patients and physicians as a result.
In this context, what if pharma took its cues from marketers such as Comcast and its efforts via Comcast Cares (www.twitter/comcastcares) and used social tools not to promote products but to address questions and issues in a real-time, one-to-one manner?
You can begin to imagine the level of transparency and authenticity that would convey to patients, caregivers, and physicians...as well as the genuine value that kind of pharma participation could offer those individuals as they are wrestling with health decisions.
I am reminded of a comment made by Drew Olanoff, creator of the social juggernaut Blame Drew's Cancer (blamedrewscancer.com), who, when struggling with his chemo treatment, longed for a pharma company to reach out to him in response to his Twitter posts to answer some of his critical questions. Clearly, under current guidelines (or lack of clear guidelines) this type of interaction is problematic for pharma. But if the goal is to enable patient health, should it be?
When we think about the issue of people's health and the myriad topics, concerns and questions that arise, it is no wonder that throngs of people are looking for answers through digital media. On the heels of healthcare reform, we can confidently assume that there will be even more people taking part in the conversation.
Digitally enabled social conversations around health are here to stay, and they will play an important role in how people make health decisions. Just as clearly, until pharma becomes actively engaged with those conversations, the potential for social media to positively impact patient health will fall short of its full potential.