From the Editor: Pharma and the Power of Web 2.0

Individuals within the pharmaceutical industry are empowered, as never before, to make changes for the better.

By Agnes Shanley, Editor in Chief

Last month, pharma blogs became an agent of change for AstraZeneca, prompting the company to look more closely at its sales and marketing practices and improve compliance. They could do the same for drug development and manufacturing for the entire industry.

We hear the buzz phrase “Web 2.0” over and over again today. This new “community-based” model, in which people can share their favorite articles, videos or music, rate the content available to them, and express their opinions, challenges any publication to develop fresh new formats. Like many media companies, we’re struggling with the concept and what it means, because it throws the standard content development process on its head: the interviewed become the interviewers, the analyzed do the analysis, the news makers decide the news.

Many of you may have no time for or interest in sites such as Digg.com, in which articles are ranked based on their usefulness and interest, or Delicious.com, in which you can rank and share your own favorites. There may even be one or two of you who haven’t yet looked at “YouTube.com,” where you’ll find some diamonds — classic videos of all types — hidden amidst mounds of rubbish, and amateurish “Wayne’s World” videos taped by angry teenagers in basements all over the world.

But one thing is certain. Your youngest colleagues use these sources, and most of them are getting their news from “nontraditional” venues on the Web.

As an industry, and a traditionally closed one, pharma is probably afraid of Web 2.0 formats such as blogs. Today, there are a growing number of patient blogs, such as Diabetes Mine, that give a tremendous amount of power to patients. Woe to the company that comes up with a clumsy delivery device or a product that doesn’t work. One negative comment on a patient blog can start a thread capable of destroying a billion-dollar blockbuster. Other blogs started by physicians have similar power.

But a new phenomenon for pharma is the “insider” blog, run by someone who has worked within the industry and is intimately familiar with its practices. An excellent and well-established example on the research and development side is “In the Pipeline,” written by small-molecule drug developer Derek Lowe, who worked for many years at Pfizer. So far, Mr. Lowe has focused on general scientific discussions, but he is highly respected and a trusted figure in cyberspace. It could only be a matter of time before people working within the industry contact him about specific problems that they face.

On the sales and marketing side, there is “Question Authority,” former Pfizer marketing executive Peter Rost’s blog. In April, one person from AstraZeneca sent him an unedited copy of an internal sales e-newsletter distributed to its oncology drug sales team, in which a district manager was quoted as saying that each doctor’s office visit represented a “bucket of money.” Each salesperson’s job, he suggested, was to reach into those buckets and get as much as you could for yourself and the company.

His message was crassly stated at a time when the industry’s image is at a low point. Rost posted the item and a copy of the newsletter on his blog, other bloggers picked up on it, and the manager was fired within one week. Only a week later did the mainstream news report on the matter.

Later, the individual who’d sent Rost the newsletter and a group of his peers formed a “group of seven,” started up a blog of their own and shared more internal documents with Rost. This included a letter that they had sent to the HHS Office of the Inspector General and some PowerPoint slides that had been circulated by a marketing director as “background” information, which clearly violated the company’s own policies. (You can catch up on this mini-drama on PharmaManufacturing.com’s blog, “On Pharma,” or go directly to the sources via links from our site).

AstraZeneca issued a formal statement within days announcing the fact that they were investigating these claims thoroughly.

They took the issue seriously.

You may not have the time or the interest to start your own blog, but there are many venues out there that can facilitate exchanging ideas and best practices with colleagues, or even air grievances about serious matters such as noncompliance.

All that is required is that you do this on your personal time and on your personal computer, anonymously. In short, you have more power than ever before to change your organization, and the industry, for the better. Use it well.

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