There’s no better way to reach an audience today than through social media – and Big Pharma is well aware of that.
Video-sharing platform TikTok, for example, is inundated with videos of users testifying to wellness through prescription drugs, with hashtags like #adhd (22.3 billion views), #ozempic (675 .1 million views) and #wegovy (259.3 million views) have been trending consistently lately.
Now experts are warning against this deceptive tactic by drugmakers of paying popular social media users to adopt their products under the guise of honest reviews, in a new study published this week in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.
These so-called patient influencers, or patient “advocates,” are social media influencers who use their platform to promote pharmaceutical drugs and/or medical devices.
Researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder analyzed 26 recent interviews with influential patients, who had been diagnosed with conditions such as lupus, fibromyalgia, Parkinson’s disease, asthma, HIV, celiac disease , chronic migraines and perimenopause.
“Patient influencers wanted to be an accurate and trustworthy source for their followers and never wanted to mislead other patients,” the researchers were encouraged to discover.
According to the researchers’ assessment, the majority (69%) had previously collaborated with a pharmaceutical company in some way – by serving on advisory boards, speaking to doctors and researchers, or communicating with audiences. keys – but seemed to have an honorable intention to raise awareness and information about their condition.
About 15% of the cohort said they shared pharmaceutical company press releases with their followers if the information was deemed relevant, and 12% said they cited medical studies to explain the information to their followers.
Only five of the influential patients said they had never shared drug information, believing it would be “borderline unethical” to do so. Many, however, weren’t too ashamed to take money from the drug companies.
Researchers expect the influencer marketing industry to be valued at $21.1 billion in 2023.
The Federal Trade Commission requires influencers to disclose whether they’ve been paid using hashtags, such as adding #ad or #sponsored to related posts, while the Food and Drug Administration has rules and regulations regarding what can be said on social posts. Still, many consumers fail to decipher a sponsored ad from genuine peer counseling, researchers fear.
“Health literacy and digital literacy are both of concern in this country,” said author Erin Willis, associate professor of advertising, public relations, and media design at CU Boulder. “The fact that patients without medical training widely share drug information should alarm us.”
Patient influencers are a form of direct drug advertising (DTC) – legal only in the United States and New Zealand – that allows pharmaceutical companies to target consumers directly, rather than through physicians.
DTP drug advertising has been popular but controversial since its beginnings in the 1980s – but this new, under-regulated medium is particularly worrying for experts, who say these patient influencer ads often lack all the necessary information that patients need to know.
The most recent and glaring example of the impact of patient influence – which has been accentuated by celebrity endorsements – is the current craze and shortage of Ozempic. The diabetes drug, along with a similar drug called Wegovy, is widely touted on social media as a quick weight loss solution.
Off-label use of Ozempic and Wegovy was so widespread last year that the FDA was forced to warn of questionable surge in drug demand, amid a report of ongoing shortages which have left some diabetics struggling to maintain their health.
It’s not just Big Pharma – directly, at least – that benefits from the social media marketplace. Medical start-up Done, which markets various treatment plans for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, was also recently accused of undermining legitimate diagnoses by overemphasizing in its advertisements the many benefits offered by its drug catalog.
“It’s a really, really thin line between publicity and almost bait,” Dr. Yamalis Diaz, a specialist in child and adolescent psychology at the Grossman School of Medicine in Washington, previously told the Post. New York University. Her young patients, she laments, already come to her with “some [brand] names in their minds.