NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- It's like Trip Advisor for drugs.
Even as Big Pharma wrestles with social-media marketing and the pending guidelines on its use from the Food and Drug Administration, consumers are taking the conversation into their own hands with online communities, message boards, forums and chat rooms offered by websites such as askapatient.com, MedHelp and patientslikeme.com. On these sites, consumers are not only sharing information about their respective illnesses and providing support for one another, they're also rating prescription medications.
"The challenge with health care is that it's always been very individual, very personalized," says Ben Heywood, co-founder and president of Boston-based site PatientsLikeMe. "Two women who have breast cancer do not share the same problems. One woman might be 30 years old with two children and a job, the other might be 50-something with grown kids and retired. They have different things going on, different needs, different problems they want to talk about. You need to solve those problems specific to that person, and I think that's what we try to do with PatientsLikeMe."
Mr. Heywood helped found the site somewhat out of necessity. His brother, Stephen, was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), and Mr. Heywood and his family were looking for ideas from doctors and fellow ALS patients on ways to extend his brother's life and improve the way he lived.
The online community he helped create includes patients, doctors, organizations and pharmaceutical companies, all in the interest of information exchange. It's privately held and does not sell advertising on its site; Patients Like Me earns its revenue through "partnerships" with many pharmaceutical companies. The site takes the information that patients share about their experience with a certain disease and sells it to drug-makers that are developing or selling products to patients. The site offers drug-makers two formats: an aggregate of reviews or individual reviews. Both formats have all possible patient identifiers removed.
Patients Like Me has a link on its site explaining "how we make money," and tells users that by "selling this data and engaging our partners in conversations about patient needs, we're helping them better understand the real-world medical value of their products so they can improve them. We are also helping companies accelerate the development of new solutions for patients."
At Ask a Patient, users can type in the name of a medication they're using and automatically go to a page where they can rate the medication from 1 (Dissatisfied: I would not recommend taking this medicine) to 5 (Very Satisfied: this medicine cured me or helped me a great deal). Users can also put in reasons why they use the medication, side effects and comments, and leave an e-mail address to communicate privately with other users.
Punching in the name of Pfizer's cholesterol drug "Lipitor," for example, yielded nearly 1,000 ratings and comments, ranging from "Cut my cholesterol in half, no side effects that I've been aware of," to one user who experienced muscle aches in the legs and wrote, "Thanks to all you guys for a heads-up on what can happen with this drug, as it is nice not to be blindsided by the medical community. Thanks again to everybody who posts here!!"
WebMD, one of the most-established names on the web with 60 million unique visitors each month, started WebMD Health Exchange in early March. WebMD Health Exchange is a social-networking platform for consumers to get online health and wellness support from fellow users, health experts and others "to exchange real experiences, discuss personal challenges, and receive direct answers and support."
Wayne Gattinella, president-CEO of WebMD, said he expects Health Exchange to become "a trusted source of information for our users and an important new communications platform for our sponsors."
Both MedHelp and WebMD sell advertising on their respective sites with click-through ads that take users to a pharmaceutical company or branded product website. WebMD also has what it calls "sponsored resources." The sponsored resources are links to health solutions for various ailments produced by different drug-makers, such as an elaborate spread from Sanofi-Aventis for about enlarged prostates that includes an ad for its Uroxatral medication, the chance to register for a newsletter and a special discount offer. Though they remain part of WebMD's site, with the banner at the top of the page, all the ads come with a disclaimer that reads: "The following is a Sponsored Resource. The sponsor of this content has sole editorial control."
WebMD is clearly doing well with this strategy. In February, the company reported that in its fourth quarter of 2009, it reaped ad revenue of $114.9 million, up 32% from $86.9 million for the same period in 2008.
How these sites will fare after the FDA rules and drug-makers begin community forums on their own sites is an open question.
Ms. Wetzel, co-founder of New York-based health-care ad agency Extrovertic and the former consumer-marketing head at Pfizer, said the online communities are changing the duties of the product manager.
"They have to be much more involved in customer service," she said. "In today's marketing, there have to be procedures in place so that people think they are being heard. I mean, particularly with AskAPatient, that site is something that the pharmaceutical companies should be monitoring on a daily or weekly basis. I think marketers underestimate the power of listening to the consumer."
Mr. Heywood agreed. "What's interesting about social media, and the value of it, is that it's about listening," he said. "It's about understanding what these products mean in the real world. The pharma companies that do that very well, those are the guys who come from the consumer package-goods space. They really know the value of the end user, know the value of just listening. "