At the Digipharm EU conference last week, I presented an update on expected FDA guidance regarding pharma’s use of the Internet. The last slide of my presentation (find it here) was my take on what effect this guidance would have on EU-based pharmaceutical marketers. The last bullet point stated:

“When all is said and done by the FDA, we may realize that social media really fits BETTER with the European way of pharma marketing, which focuses on disease awareness and direct-to-patient response only upon request by the patient.”

I’ve expressed that view several times here on Pharma Marketing Blog (see, for example, “Some Pharma Marketers Can’t See the Unbranded SM Forest for the Branded SM Tree“).

Also, I have noticed that almost ALL pharma social media campaigns are unbranded, disease awareness/support campaigns sponsored by EU-based companies that are used to focusing on this type of communication because of EU laws that forbid branded advertising.

Recently, however, such campaigns have come under attack because they may be pushing more patients into treatment unnecessarily. Such was the point made in a recent LA Times article regarding breast cancer awareness campaigns (see here). That article, which reminded us that October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, pointed out that disease awareness campaigns lead to more screening and “the more we screen, the more women we subject to surgery, chemotherapy and radiation for cancers that never would have harmed them. A New England Journal of Medicine article,” said the LA Times, “estimated that for every life saved by a screening mammogram, five to 15 other women needlessly became diagnosed and treated.”

To top it all off, according to the National Breast Cancer Coalition in Washington, D.C., 117 women in the U.S. died of breast cancer every day in 1991; today that number is 110.

The founding sponsor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month is AstraZeneca, which responded to the LA Times article by saying “If it’s not broken, I don’t think we should try and fix it.” AZ cited data available from the National Cancer Institute, which suggested that “the mortality rate for women with breast cancer was 32.6 percent [in 1991]. That had fallen to 22.8 percent in 2007…” (see “National Breast Cancer Awareness Month as relevant as ever“).

Aside from the issue of effectiveness of disease awareness campaigns, there’s the issue of patient empowerment, which we often hear in conjunction with these campaigns. “Some critics,” notes the LA Times article, “object to messages that emphasize the need for women to ‘take charge’ of their breast health because they imply that women are at fault if they get the disease, says Angela Wall, communications manager for Breast Cancer Action, a San Francisco-based advocacy group.”

Of course, an issue I’ve often mentioned in this blog is pharma’s tendency to make it seem that more people may have the disease du jour than is warranted by the data (see, for example, “OMG! Do I Have ED or ‘Low T?’ Or Both?! Pharma ‘Symptom Quizzes’ Are NOT in the Best Interest of Patient Health!” and “You Must Score Better than 84% on Viagra’s Sexual Health Quiz to NOT Have Signs of ED.“).

Still, a disease awareness campaign, if done right, can benefit from a social media component. First, these campaigns are usually not on FDA’s regulatory radar. Second, consumers and patients are more likely to engage with social media campaigns than with branded campaigns. You can motivate more people to walk 10 miles for breast cancer awareness than for Zoladex, which is AZ’s FDA-approved drug for use against breast cancer.