New study looks at FDA's use of so­cial me­dia to com­mu­ni­cate on drug safe­ty

A new study look­ing at the FDA use of so­cial me­dia to com­mu­ni­cate about drug safe­ty finds that the agency could im­prove its im­pact by de­vel­op­ing so­cial me­dia strate­gies and tak­ing a more ac­tive role on web plat­forms.

The study, con­duct­ed by re­searchers at Har­vard Med­ical School, North­east­ern Uni­ver­si­ty, Boston Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal and The Ohio State Uni­ver­si­ty, and fund­ed by FDA’s Cen­ter for Drug Eval­u­a­tion and Re­search, looks specif­i­cal­ly at FDA’s use of so­cial me­dia fol­low­ing two drug safe­ty com­mu­ni­ca­tions (DSCs) for drugs con­tain­ing zolpi­dem, the ac­tive in­gre­di­ent in Am­bi­en.

In 2013, FDA is­sued two DSCs re­lat­ed to zolpi­dem, the first in Jan­u­ary warn­ing of the risk of next-day im­pair­ment af­ter tak­ing in­som­nia drugs and re­quir­ing low­er rec­om­mend­ed dos­es for drugs con­tain­ing zolpi­dem, and the sec­ond no­ti­fy­ing the pub­lic that the agency had ap­proved those la­bel­ing changes.

In ad­di­tion to pub­lish­ing the DSCs to its web­site, FDA made posts re­lat­ed to the DSCs on its var­i­ous so­cial me­dia ac­counts, in­clud­ing its Face­book page and three of its Twit­ter ac­counts (@US_FDA@FDA_Drug_In­fo and @FDAMed­Watch).

For the first DSC, FDA post­ed once to its Face­book ac­count, get­ting 61 shares, and tweet­ed six times across its three ac­counts, for a to­tal of 111 retweets.

To mea­sure the im­pact of FDA’s posts, the au­thors iden­ti­fied some 174,000 tweets and 59,000 Face­book posts ref­er­enc­ing zolpi­dem be­tween 1 Oc­to­ber 2012 and 31 Au­gust 2013. Of those, rough­ly 9% of the tweets were tagged as ad­verse events (AEs), 74% were tagged as men­tions and 17% were con­sid­ered junk. For the Face­book posts, 5% were iden­ti­fied as AEs, 69% as men­tions and 26% as junk.

How­ev­er, for the sec­ond DSC, FDA did not post to Face­book and on­ly tweet­ed about the DSC for its@FDA_Drug_In­fo ac­count (3 tweets, 37 retweets), though the agency al­so tweet­ed gen­er­al­ly about a group of re­cent pre­scrib­ing changes, in­clud­ing for zolpi­dem, from its@FDAMed­Watch ac­count.

The au­thors ob­served a greater so­cial me­dia re­sponse from both Twit­ter and Face­book users fol­low­ing the first DSC, but did not no­tice an in­crease in so­cial ac­tiv­i­ty re­lat­ed to zolpi­dem fol­low­ing the sec­ond com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

The au­thors say that the dif­fer­ence in so­cial me­dia re­sponse to the two safe­ty com­mu­ni­ca­tions can be ex­plained by the dif­fer­ence in how FDA is­sued the com­mu­ni­ca­tions. In ad­di­tion to post­ing about the first DSC more fre­quent­ly and to more of its ac­counts, the first DSC was al­so is­sued with an ac­com­pa­ny­ing press re­lease.

Rec­om­men­da­tions

To make bet­ter use of its so­cial me­dia pres­ence in the fu­ture, the au­thors rec­om­mend that FDA de­vel­op strate­gies for how and how of­ten to post dif­fer­ent types of mes­sages.

“Since there can be a lot of ques­tion­able in­for­ma­tion shared on so­cial me­dia, the FDA should be able to lever­age its in­de­pen­dent ex­per­tise and po­si­tion as a wide­ly trust­ed source of in­for­ma­tion to help pro­mote ac­cu­rate and in­for­ma­tive mes­sages. In the case of the zolpi­dem safe­ty alerts, the FDA took some steps to do that, but could cre­ate more out­reach and dis­sem­i­nate its ma­te­ri­als more fre­quent­ly via var­ied plat­forms,” Michael Sin­ha, a post­doc­tor­al fel­low at Har­vard and lead au­thor on the pa­per told Fo­cus.

Sin­ha al­so em­pha­sized that the so­cial me­dia land­scape is sub­stan­tial­ly dif­fer­ent now than in 2013 when these safe­ty com­mu­ni­ca­tions were is­sued.

“So­cial me­dia like Twit­ter was seen as more of a recre­ation­al tool in 2013, but now many pro­fes­sion­als, aca­d­e­m­ic in­sti­tu­tions and com­pa­nies have vi­brant so­cial me­dia pres­ences. In­creased health pro­fes­sion­al en­gage­ment on so­cial me­dia in­creas­es the like­li­hood that FDA con­tent on these plat­forms would be more wide­ly dis­sem­i­nat­ed and have a greater im­pact,” he said.

The pa­per al­so rec­om­mends that FDA de­vel­op a greater un­der­stand­ing of so­cial me­dia plat­form fea­tures and user pref­er­ences to de­vel­op its ap­proach to post­ing.

“FDA should try to stay on top of the ever-evolv­ing strate­gies be­ing de­vel­oped on so­cial me­dia to am­pli­fy mes­sages—such as use of han­dles or hash­tags on Twit­ter—that can bring at­ten­tion to im­por­tant drug safe­ty con­tent dis­sem­i­nat­ed by the agency,” Sin­ha said.

The au­thors al­so sug­gest that FDA should take mat­ters in­to its own hands when it comes to up­dat­ing in­for­ma­tion about drugs on Wikipedia.

De­spite mul­ti­ple ed­its to the Wikipedia page cor­re­spond­ing to both com­mu­ni­ca­tions, the pages con­tained in­com­plete in­for­ma­tion and did not cite the DSCs them­selves.

“Giv­en that in­for­ma­tion­al sites like Wikipedia are com­mon­ly ac­cessed by the lay pub­lic for in­for­ma­tion on drugs and that any­one can ed­it the con­tent, the FDA should con­sid­er a plan to for­mal­ly up­date the pages for ap­pro­pri­ate con­tent at the time a DSC is re­leased and to en­sure con­tin­ued ac­cu­ra­cy of the in­for­ma­tion over time,” the au­thors write.


First pub­lished here. Reg­u­la­to­ry Fo­cus is the flag­ship on­line pub­li­ca­tion of the Reg­u­la­to­ry Af­fairs Pro­fes­sion­als So­ci­ety (RAPS), the largest glob­al or­ga­ni­za­tion of and for those in­volved with the reg­u­la­tion of health­care and re­lat­ed prod­ucts, in­clud­ing med­ical de­vices, phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, bi­o­log­ics and nu­tri­tion­al prod­ucts. Email news@raps.org for more in­for­ma­tion.

Fangliang Zhang, AP Images

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