Is FDA keeping social media from taking flight in pharma?

Uncertainty has a way of stalling progress while spurring creativity, whether you're smarting at a delayed flight or working in pharma.

This idea sprang to mind on Sunday while I was reading about the uncertain regulations on pharma companies' use of social media at a Newark airport, where I was marooned thanks to dubious airline practices.

From what I've seen, the pharma fleet hasn't taken flight with many new uses of social media to ease some of the most acute problems in the industry. On Twitter, for instance, drugmakers chime in about company news, applaud the good work of their executives, and deliver occasional health tips. Their avatars are company logos without the personalized identities that help differentiate Twitter feeds from RSS feeds.

In my opinion, pharma owns only part of the blame for its social shortcomings, however.

Despite clearing an impressive 39 new drugs for the U.S., the FDA was poky on the social media front in 2012. The agency shed some light on its thinking regarding off-label product communications at the end of 2011, but last year the regulator made no visible progress in clearly defining its stance on myriad issues regarding how pharma should navigate the world of social media.

Remember, uncertainty has a way of stalling progress. As I write this post, I'm flying west for the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco, oh, about 6 hours behind schedule because I got involuntarily bumped from my initial connecting flight out of Newark. All my plans for Sunday evening are kaput.

If drugmakers saw some light in the regulatory gloom after the FDA's draft guidance on off-label issues, the glow quickly faded during the 12 months that followed. Out the window went any plans to hit the accelerator on, say, engaging patients on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms on topics that seem too risky without knowing what to expect from regulators.

Still, uncertainty has a way of spurring creativity. I'm already mulling a charter flight for next January's JPM, where fledgling life sciences entrepreneurs get to share their big ideas with investors and senior biotech execs seated next to them. The chance of a flight delay drops and passengers exchange valuable information. (Interested? Hop on Twitter and DM me @RyanMFierce.) 

Clearly, the FDA's slow progress hasn't sapped all creative output on social sites for drugmakers. Boehringer Ingelheim launched a Facebook game last year that lets players operate their own virtual pharma company. PatientsLikeMe has given patients their own online communities with support from drugmakers.

Players of BI's game, called "Syrum," might learn to appreciate the role of pharma in fighting disease. However, at least right now, the Facebook game won't assist BI in recruiting for clinical trials, matching therapies with patients in need, or improving the efficiency of its actual R&D programs.

I'm hardly the first one to comment on the FDA's slow progress in providing direction on social media. John Mack (aka Pharma Marketing Guy) has been all over it and predicted last month that regulators will sit on their hands this year and wait until shortly before their statutory deadline of July 9, 2014, to issue social-media guidance.

Until the agency takes action, pharma companies might delay many of the most productive uses of social media. -- Ryan McBride (email | Twitter)