Lynda Chang, BSc (Hons), PhD, ISMPP CMPP™, Complete HealthVizion*, Glasgow, UK; Beatrice V. Vetter-Ceriotti, BSc (Hons), PhD, Complete HealthVizion*, Glasgow, UK; Grace Miller, BSc (Hons), Complete HealthVizion*, Manchester, UK; Tamalette Loh, BS, PhD, Complete HealthVizion, Chicago, IL, USA
*Complete HealthVizion is a division of McCann Health Medical Communications, which is part of the McCann Health Network.

Social media is part of everyday life for many healthcare professionals (HCPs) who use it alongside traditional communication channels for scientific exchange and debate. The benefits of facilitating the transparent and credible exchange of medical publications-related information are clear. Insights from online discussion also provide new channels when looking at treatment landscapes for disease areas. The question for medical publication professionals is how to communicate through social media and how to navigate the unique compliance, trust, and content challenges that social media poses.

Why should medical publication professionals engage in social media and where is the added value?
Social media can be one of the quickest ways to gather information on myriad topics, and its use is increasingly extending into the professional setting. In the broad social and political sphere, where some social media influencers have millions of followers, it is easy to see how far reaching content can be and the impact it can have. Social media is widely used to share publications-related content, from sharing links to articles or bite-sized content such as infographics or video abstracts, to discussion of article content (see Figure 1 below). For journals and the pharmaceutical industry, social media represents an opportunity to enable publications to reach a wider audience. Once in the social media sphere, scientific exchange and debate by HCPs demonstrate the frictionless sharing of information, which is social media’s greatest strength.

Social media can also be used to monitor the online footprint of newly published research, allowing level of interest (number of retweets, topics discussed) to be gauged.1 These social media interactions have given rise to their own form of metrics, Altmetrics and PlumX, for example, which provide article-level information on overall engagement through social media channels. The scientific exchange and debate regarding publications that can take place on social media is also a rich source of insights for publication professionals. What is being discussed? Who is discussing it? What scientific questions arise from it?2

Figure 1. Not all social media activities are equal

What are the current challenges for medical publication professionals?
Social media’s benefits for publication professionals need to be considered in the context of limitations and risks. For example, the more in-depth debate and discussion that works for HCPs might not be appropriate for industry or journals, for whom fair balance is critically important.

Social media is designed for the quick and easy consumption of information, so it is a valuable tool for enhancing reach by providing simple links to content. However, communicating content within social media posts requires greater consideration. How many times have newspapers used headlines like “Bacon causes cancer!”? Similarly, with the limited word count of social media posts, there is the risk of oversimplification. Certainly, there is perception in the pharmaceutical industry that social media is associated with a loss of nuance and oversimplified messaging, which can open it up to litigation.3,4

Even with pharmaceutical companies slowly increasing their use of social media, many are reluctant to fully engage out of fear of litigation and perception of overpromotion.3,5,6 As such, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has published guidance on the use of social media for the promotion of therapies; it recommends that any social media activity promoting a drug be accurate and balanced and include both the benefits and most serious risks of the products.7 Due to these compliance limitations, pharmaceutical companies are often reluctant to go beyond sharing clinical trials/articles, but there may be instances in which it could be necessary to become involved, such as if a conversation about a particular product strays into misinformation. Medical communication agencies can help by highlighting discussions to their clients and providing suggestions for how to respond, although any action should come from the pharmaceutical company and would require medical, legal, and regulatory approval. Publication professionals must ensure that any material created for social media be faithful and unbiased summaries of the content; however, the question of just how much publications stakeholders should get involved in any commentary on a publication still remains.8 Despite these challenges, social media offers a rich vein of potential interaction with HCPs and even patients that publication professionals traditionally struggle with, and it is important to understand how best to do this.

Any material created for social media must be accurate, balanced, and based on robust scientific data.

What can medical publication professionals learn from the social media dialogue on publications?
Social media offers opportunities to monitor conversations about articles in real time, allowing publication professionals to evaluate if they are engaging the right audience and what that audience thinks about the data. Social media may also provide ideas for further research that may not yet have occurred to the authors of the publication. This can offer useful insights and collaborations that can be considered when developing or refining future communications and educational strategies, which is already happening in the academic world.1 By regular monitoring of social media user engagement, publication professionals can develop a fuller understanding of who are favorable towards the data and who are not, why they may feel that way, and where additional medical education is required.

Recently, ISMPP conducted a member survey to understand the awareness, knowledge, and use of social media among publication professionals.9 While there was widespread awareness of social media and its accompanying metrics, few understood how to evaluate reach and engagement.9 Most responders were interested in those who engaged in social media and which sources generated the most interest; however, few responder organizations indicated they monitored social media activity regularly.9 Given the value that monitoring social media brings to understanding what HCPs think about the data in specific articles, this seems like a missed opportunity.

Understanding social media timing is also an important consideration in monitoring social media.10-16 Studies of Twitter use have shown that social media is most effective in the first month of a publication, when interest in new data is at its highest.14 This impact also seems to increase with coordinated Twitter strategies; when journals tweet about particular articles or publishers encourage journal Twitter chats, the number of hits to journal sites increases significantly.10,16-18 The importance of journal engagement cannot be understated, as journal tweets that share links to publications were observed to have higher engagement than tweets from other sources. However, journal tweets, particularly from lower-tiered journals, seem to be underused and may represent another missed opportunity.16 More so, the impact on engagement greatly increases if a publications tweet is used with other media, such as blogs, news feeds, and other press.10,12 It is, therefore, important to not only understand when to monitor social media activity, but also to understand journal policies on social media presence when submitting articles.

What should social media content look like?
The time that HCPs have to read and access journal articles is ever diminishing; this is where social media really comes into its own. Social media can present HCPs with the latest research through tweets or links, which enables them to rapidly scan the latest research in their areas of interest and decide whether they want to dig deeper. Having content that is clear and “snackable” through interesting visuals may further pique readers’ interest and lead to increased traffic to publications. Other media, such as podcasts, video abstracts, and infographics, is important to consider, as the style of their content nicely reflects the style of those sites frequently visited by some HCPs, such as Instagram and Reddit.6 In the future, it is likely that social media content that complements the style of each publication will become the norm.

The benefits of social media in extending the reach of communications are clear, and there are some simple approaches that can enhance this, such as more consistent tweeting from journals about new content or using accompanying content like plain language or visually interesting summaries. Medical publication professionals should be thinking about such aspects as part of publication tactics. By looking at how HCPs interact with content, publication professionals can gather insights on the dialogue, user behavior, and preferences, which can be considered when developing future strategies.

The authors thank Rhiannon Meaden and Robert Poole of Complete HealthVizion for conceptual contribution to the article.


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Featured image – Editorial credit: Nopparat Khokthong /

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