Yesterday, while most of us were still on vacation, the FDA quietly issued without fanfare — ie, no press release telling us about it or how to submit comments — “Guidance for Industry Responding to Unsolicited Requests for Off-Label Information About Prescription Drugs and Medical Devices.” You can find the document here.

Section VI. of this guidance addresses responding to unsolicited requests on public forums such as the Internet. While this may not be the “social media” guidance many people were expecting (see “First FDA Social Media Guidance to Address Responding to ‘Unsolicited Requests’ for Off-label Information“), it does include guidelines for responding to unsolicited requests for off-label information encountered through “emerging electronic media.”

As with all guidances, FDA warns “Firms may choose to respond to unsolicited requests for information about off-label uses of their approved or cleared products in a manner other than that recommended in this draft guidance. Such activity would not constitute a per se violation of the law, but could potentially be introduced as evidence of a new intended use.” Some drug companies (eg, Pfizer) would have preferred new legally-binding regulations rather than guidelines (see, for example, “Pfizer Asks for New FDA Regulations, Not Guidance, for Social Media“). The industry might also challenge these guidelines on legal grounds (see, for example, “Pharma Turns Up the Heat on Off-Label “Free Speech” Chilled by FDA – Implications for Social Media Marketing“).

Aside from pressure by the drug industry, FDA felt the need to issue this guidance because it “recognizes that it can be in the best interest of public health for a firm to respond to unsolicited requests for information about off-label uses of the firm’s products that are addressed to a public forum, as other participants in the forum who offer responses may not provide or have access to the most accurate and up-to-date information about the firm’s products.” I’m not sure I agree with that because there have been a number of surveys that indicate physicians (as well as the general public) have several other preferred sources of drug information (see, for example, “Are Pharma Reps Important to Docs or Not?“). But let’s leave that issue aside for now.

Let’s take a closer look at how these guidelines apply to social media such as Youtube, Blogs, and Twitter.

The guidelines break out responding to PRIVATE and PUBLIC requests for off-label information. As for handling private requests, the guidelines pretty much reiterate what the drug industry already knows. The section regarding public requests, however, is what will be of most interest to the industry. Social media is in the this category.

Youtube and Solicited Requests
The guidelines have something interesting to say about videos posted on Youtube.  Specifically, it warns about responding to public comments that may be received in response to videos that a pharma company may encourage people to post about about their own uses of the company’s product. FDA gives this example:

“A firm asks or otherwise encourages users to post videos about their own uses of its product on third-party video-sharing sites (e.g., YouTube), which may result in video postings about an off-label use of its product. If the firm’s initial request for posting of videos results in any questions about off-label uses, or if any off-label video posting made in response to the firm’s 1encouragement of video postings results in questions about the product’s off-label use, these questions would be considered solicited requests.

FDA considers requests for off-label information that are prompted in any way by a manufacturer or its representatives to be solicited. If a company responds to such “solicited  requests,” it must be careful because such responses  “may be used as evidence of a new intended use. Introducing a product into commerce for such a new intended use without FDA approval or clearance would, under these requirements, generally violate the law.”

Is this guidance enough to encourage pharma companies to open up comments on their Youtube pages?

I doubt it. Most pharma companies are still waiting to know how they should respond to potential adverse event reports they may receive via comments before they venture into opening up comments on Youtube. It’s not even likely that pharma companies will engage in branded Youtube projects in the first place, although there has been a precedent (see “Novartis Attempts Perfect Execution of Web 2.0 Trick!“).

Of more interest to me are the examples FDA gives for how drug companies should respond to “unsolicited” requests via social media.

Blogger Example of “Solicited Request”
FDA cites this example: “If a firm sends out packets of information to known bloggers or online consumer reviewers and encourages them to write about an off-label use of its product on third-party sites and this then provokes a discussion about that off-label use, any requests inquiring about the product’s off-label use as a result of these blogs, whether posted as comments to the third-party site or directed to the firm, would be considered solicited requests.”

Although I have never heard of a pharma company ever “encouraging” bloggers to write about off-label uses, I do know that some companies have invited bloggers to vacation sites (see “A Call for Pharma Social Media Transparency Guidelines for Patient Bloggers“). What they discuss behind closed doors is not known to me or to the FDA unless there is a blogger “mole” present.

So, how would FDA prove that the company “encouraged” off-label discussion?

One way is to examine the contents of the “packets of information” sent to the bloggers. If that packet includes off-label information, then FDA can make a case that the company encouraged the blogger to write about it.  (See “BI Masters the Art of WOM through Its ‘Parrots,’ er, Spokespersons” for a similar situation involving BI). The guidelines do NOT get into this level of detail, which is unfortunate and supports industry’s claim that FDA guidance is often “unclear.” I’m sure this will be a topic covered by comments to the FDA regarding this guidance.

Twitter Example of “Solicited Request”
FDA cites this example: “If a firm announces results of a study via a microblogging service (e.g., Twitter) and suggests that an off-label use of its product is safe and effective, any comments and requests received as a result of the original message about the off-label use would be considered solicited requests.”

Many pharma company Twitter accounts have been used to announce results of studies related to unapproved uses of Rx drugs. Some such tweets may have made efficacy claims, but I am not aware of any that claimed the product was “safe.” I am not sure from reading the guidelines how FDA would view such tweets.

How should pharma respond to unsolicited requests received via public Internet sites and social media?

FDA puts limits on how to respond to such requests on public sites. FDA is concerned that product information “posted on websites and other public electronic forums is likely to be available to a broad audience and for an indefinite period of time [and] that firms may post detailed public online responses to questions about off-label uses of their products in such a way that they are communicating unapproved or uncleared use information about FDA-regulated medical products to individuals who have not requested such information. In this circumstance, communications to persons who have not requested information may promote a product for a use or condition for which FDA has not approved or cleared. FDA is also concerned about the enduring nature of detailed public online responses to off-label questions because specific drug or device information may become outdated (e.g., new risk information may become available).”

In general, FDA’s position is that “a firm’s public response to public unsolicited requests for off-label information about its named product should be limited to providing the firm’s contact information and should not include any off-label information.”

That eliminates a “loop hole” I often worried about; namely, an anonymous agent of a pharmaceutical company can post a request for off-label information and initiate a discussion that includes information posted by the pharmaceutical company itself.

FDA suggests that a drug company handle such public requests through private channels after the requester follows up to the contact provided with a private request that will then be handled “offline.”

FDA says:

  • The firm’s public response should convey that the question pertains to an unapproved or uncleared use of the product and state that individuals can contact the medical/scientific representative or medical affairs department with the specific unsolicited request to obtain more information. 
  • The firm’s public response should provide specific contact information for the medical or scientific personnel or department (e.g., e-mail address, telephone number, facsimile) so that individuals can follow up independently with the firm to obtain specific information about the off-label use of the product through a non-public, one-on-one communication.

Does It Serve the Public Interest?
Regarding responding to public requests; eg, via social media, FDA says “any substantive communication about off-label uses for the product, in response to the original unsolicited off label question, should occur solely between the firm and the individual who made the request,” says FDA. “Regardless of the fact that the original, unsolicited off-label question may have been available to a very broad audience, the firm should not make its detailed response with off-label information publicly available within the same forum.”

Unfortunately, although this may close the “loop hole” I mentioned above, this method of responding individually has a couple of negative implications:

  1. First, private responses may not serve “the best interest of public health” because “public” means a bunch of people, not one person at a time. On the one hand, FDA believes responding to unsolicited requests for information about off label uses of the firm’s products serves the public interest because the firm has “robust and current information about their products.” On the other hand, firms cannot distribute this information “publicly.”
  2. Responding privately requires more resources and expenses. Many people over the course of time may have the same questions. Instead of being able to use the power of the Internet to answer all these questions in a single message, each must be handled separately.

Sales and Marketing May be Seen, but Should NOT Be Heard From!
However the response is made, the FDA believes that “Responses to unsolicited requests for information should be generated by medical or scientific personnel independent from sales or marketing departments. FDA recommends that medical or scientific personnel have specialized backgrounds in responding to unsolicited requests for information, including important training, such as appropriately narrowing questions, tailoring responses only to the specific questions being asked, providing unbiased responses, and properly documenting responses.

“By contrast,” says FDA, “because sales and marketing personnel are focused by training and experience on promoting a firm’s products, FDA recommends that sales and marketing personnel have no input on the content of responses to unsolicited questions or requests for off-label information.”

There are more nuggets of information in this guidance that I haven’t covered here. I look forward to the comments form the drug industry itself.