The Cross-Border Biotech Blog

Biotechnology, Health and Business in Canada, the United States and Worldwide

Tag Archives: Twitter

Biotech Trends in 2011: Social Media in Biotech and Healthcare

Use of social media by pharmaceutical companies, biotechs, and industry observers will continue to grow in scale, value and importance this year. The emergence of Twitter as a public health surveillance tool and the pending (still pending…) release of the FDA’s social media guidelines will contribute to this growth in the short term, and we’ll continue to keep an eye on novel developments.

This post is the first in a series briefly outlining the biotech industry trends we’ve been following on the blog and noting some recent developments, plus directions for 2011.

Trends Update — Social Media Reshaping Healthcare: Twitter as a Public Health Surveillance Tool for the 21st Century

We have been following innovative uses for social media in the biotech and healthcare industry here on the blog. Recently, a comprehensive paper was published in PLoS ONE outlining the use of “infoveillance” tools on the web to track the public response to the H1N1 epidemic. Dr. Gunther Eysenbach and Cynthia Chew, both researchers at Toronto’s Centre for Global eHealth Innovation, mined and archived over 2 million Twitter posts between May 1 and December 31, 2009. After carrying out an in depth analysis of these “tweets”, they validated Twitter as an effective medium to capture real-time content, sentiment, and public attention trends. Infoveillance methods include data mining, aggregation, and categorizations of online text and together form the toolkit for the new study of “infodemiology”. In the paper, Eysenbach points out that Twitter is particularly amenable to textual mining and analysis due to the concise nature of tweets that users share with their respective followers.

The concept of infodemiology began to crop up in the early 2000s when several different researchers began playing with the idea of using Internet health-related searches to provide epidemiological data that could be used to inform public health. In 2004, Eysenbach became interested in tracking flu-related searches using online syndromic surveillance. Historically, syndromic surveillance systems have typically relied on data from patient encounters with health professionals. But what if we could track the health concerns of citizens before they ever see a physician? It turns out we can. The study of infodemiology on the World Wide Web has the potential to provide automatic, continuous, and virtually real-time snapshots of public opinion and behavioural trends. In the context of public health this means capturing public health concerns at their earliest stages and even predicting major influenza pandemics weeks before they happen.

In 2006 Eysenbach published findings from a rather clever experiment he had completed over the 2004/2005 flu season. In order to track the number of people in Canada that were searching for either “flu” or “flu symptoms” he created an ad “campaign” through the keyword-triggered advertising program Google AdSense. For the purposes of optics the flu keywords led searchers to an advertisement that linked them to a generic patient education website after a click. Eysenbach then gathered FluWatch data, including influenza cases, positive lab test results, and influenza-like illness reported by sentinel physicians (“ILI-SPR”) around the country, and correlated these disease surveillance metrics with his Google advertisement data. Incredibly, Eysenbach found that clicks on the flu advertisement he had created correlated more strongly and in a more timely fashion (statistically significant on both accounts) with influenza cases and positive lab test results than did the ILI-SPR data. In a nutshell, his online experiment was more accurate at predicting rises in influenza cases than was the nation-wide sentinel physician program.

Three years later in 2009 a research paper funded by Google was published in Nature describing an influenza surveillance system piggy-backing on the popularity of certain Google search queries. The model underlying the surveillance system was generated by processing hundreds of billions of previous individual Google searches stored in web search logs. (Despite Eysenbach’s earlier work being cited in the Google paper, most journalists failed to recognize that Google’s idea wasn’t entirely new). Today Google Flu Trends can be accessed online to follow worldwide estimates of influenza-like activity. Google may have to go back to the drawing boards and refine its model however, as a new study published this past summer shrouds the accuracy of the system in some doubt. Researchers at the University of Washington evaluated Google Flu Trends against the gold standard positive influenza virus infection and its accuracy came up short – about 25% short.

The new H1N1 Twitter study reaffirms Eysenbach’s status as a visionary in the field of infodemiology. With “Web 2.0” upon us, and tsunamis of user-generated content flooding the web, the Internet “has made measurable what was previously immeasurable” in Eysenbach’s words. What we could not measure 10 years ago due to the (comparatively) static nature of the Internet, is now readily measurable with infoveillance tools. In the context of H1N1 Eysenbach says:

“H1N1 marks the first instance in which a global pandemic has occurred in the age of Web 2.0 and presents a unique opportunity to investigate the potential role of these technologies in public health emergencies.”

To carry out analysis of tweet content in the H1N1 study Chew and Eysenbach used an open-source infoveillance system known as Infovigil (Eysenbach’s own creation) that automatically and continuously dissects textual information from Twitter. They created a “codebook” with three primary variables: 1) tweet content, 2) mode of expression, and 3) type of link posted, if any. Each of these categories had several subcategories allowing for good separation of different tweet “types”. The study had some interesting findings. Over the duration of the study the relative proportion of tweets using “H1N1” increased from 8.8% to 40.5%, indicating that the public gradually began to adopt the WHO-recommended terminology as opposed to “swine flu”. With respect to tweet content, personal accounts of H1N1 increased over time while humorous content declined, indicating that the public’s perception of the subject became more serious. The public attention was aroused in certain instances, especially following the WHO pandemic level 6 announcement on June 11, 2009, which gave rise to a large spike in tweets. Only 4.5% of tweets were identified as misinformation.

Overall the study is a nice proof of concept and displays the fact that Twitter is a rich source of public opinion for the health authorities. Infoveillance can be used in the future not only for capturing sentiment, experiences, and behavioural trends, but importantly for tracking misinformation and identifying the informational needs of the human population. More studies of this kind should elucidate the value that social media will have for knowledge translation research and help refine the precision and accuracy of infoveillance tools for future infodemiology studies.

Biotech Trends Update — Social Media for Biotechs: Building Momentum Toward Critical Mass

In December, I wrote a post listing the top 3 reasons biotech companies should use social media and noted that we would be following adoption and use of social media by biotechs as one of our Trends in 2010.

The 2010 Dose of Digital Dosie Awards held voting for finalists this week, including for Best Facebook Page, Best YouTube Channel, Best Twitter Feed and Best Blog (in a number of categories).  The pharma and healthcare social media wiki that Dose of Digital maintains is a growing list, but still doesn’t include very many biotech companies. 

So, why haven’t we seen more social media among biotechs? 

Is it fear of FDA admonishment?  This blog post/video clip from Future of Pharma spends some time blaming the FDA’s evolving social media policy.  If the FDA were the problem, though, pharma companies wouldn’t be moving into social networking either.  But they are.

Is it fear of creating reporting obligations because of casual mentions of adverse events?  Looking at one community shows that a significant number of reportable adverse events could be unearthed; but Dose of Digital doesn’t view this as a risk or an excuse for avoiding social media, and explains why here.

The real answer is simpler: the value of a social network is the network.  Until a critical mass of biotechs seed a social media presence, most other companies will not realize sufficient value in being online themselves.

The critical mass is starting to build: Michael Gilman, the Founder/CEO of Stromedix is on Twitter, as is Richard Pops, the CEO of Alkermes.  On Twitter, they interact with investors, journalists and patient communities; which points out that it’s not just a critical mass of other biotechs that creates social media value. 

For example, the HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN), at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, is running a series of ads on Facebook to recruit patients to its trials; one of their sites is using Craigslist and individual patients are reporting about their experiences with the trials on blogs and on Facebook.  The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation and the McGill University Health Centre are also using social media for outreach.

My bottom line: social media will be an increasingly common tool for biotech companies in business development, corporate communications, patient recruitment and for employee recruitment and development.  The sooner you start the more expertise you’ll have.

Biotech Trends in 2010: Top Three Reasons Why Biotech Companies Should Use Social Media

Tech startups use social media avidly [rabidly?], but biotech companies? Not so much.  Biotech companies should be blogging, tweeting and linking in like mad, though.  Here’s why:

  1. Your customers (pharma companies) do it.  More and more pharma companies are active in social media. Take a look at this article in the December issue of Life Science Leader (h/t @FiercePharma) or read the Dose of Digital blog any day of the week and you’ll be directed to interesting information about how products are being developed, tested and marketed. These are things you need to keep in mind as you move through your own product development process. Also, lots of pharma folks are on LinkedIn, so if you are as well, you’ll maximize your ability to reach out through personal connections when you’re building a constituency for your partnering deals.  Here’s my Twitter list of BioPharma news and analysis.
  2. Your investors do it.  Check out this Twitter List of Canadian VCs, Angel investors and other funders.  Look at what they’re talking about, and you’ll see you don’t have to tell people what you ate for lunch (or disclose your latest lab results) to convey that you’re doing something interesting that other people are interested in.  Check out the CVCA’s blog, Capital Rants or the Maple Leaf Angels blog.  In Toronto? Stop in at the MaRS blog or the R.I.C. blog to see where investors will be and what they’re thinking about.
  3. Your peers (other startups) do it.  If you’re not participating in online conversations, you’re missing a world of good advice and perspectives.  Click over to Rick Segal’s blog or  StartupCFO, Mark MacLeod’s Blog. It doesn’t really matter that these guys aren’t involved in biotech. Lots of startups are facing similar issues to yours — funding, staffing, etc. and getting out of the biotech bubble from time to time can be a good thing.  Plus, being at a startup is isolating, particularly in biotech with its strong incentives to run a virtual company, so go online to find peers, mentors and other resources.

If this all sounds reasonable, but you’re still skeptical, or not interested, then find someone in your organization who’s excited about it, regardless of their actual job, and set him/her loose.  [Not totally loose, of course. Common sense is critical online because it's hard to hit "undo" on the web, and appropriate confidentiality remains key to biotech ventures.  But all your people have common sense and discretion, right?]

We’ll be keeping an eye out for biotechs and other bioscience companies that are making good use of social media as part of our Biotech Trends series this coming year.  Other suggestions for 2010 biotech trends?  Let us know

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FDA Meeting on the Internet, Social Media and Online Drug Marketing

Following some perplexing moves by the FDA, including cracking down on Google search ads, the agency convened a two-day hearing on the use of the internet and social media for online drug marketing last week.  The goal of the hearings was to seek comments from

“all interested parties, including, but not limited to, consumers, patients, caregivers, health care professionals, patient groups, Internet vendors, advertising agencies, and the regulated industry … [in order to] help guide FDA in making policy decisions on the promotion of human and animal prescription drugs and biologics and medical devices using the Internet and social media tools.”

If you are interested in the topic, you can:

  1. Watch the whole thing via an archived webcast (until they take it down, but then you can read the transcript);
  2. Search #FDASM on Twitter and read the real-time reactions; or
  3. Read yesterday’s genius FiercePharma post by Tracy Staton that boils the whole thing down to a delicious executive-summary-type bite-size blurb. [See what I did there, FiercePharma headline writers?]

I highly recommend #3.

The FDA is collecting comments until February 28th (2010), after which it will digest the whole lot of them and formulate some guidance (likely) or regs (less likely) that will shape online behaviour.

P.S. Thanks LogoTwitter!

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This Week in the Twitterverse

Tweets I tweeted this week @crossborderbio:

Two Initiatives in Canada Aim to Grow Fresh Crops of Entrepreneurs

Chris Arsenault at iNovia has had an interesting series of tweets recently — two noting Canadian programs for young entrepreneurs:

He’s also in the middle of an interesting (and necessarily pithy) debate with Craig Netterfeld at Wellington about entrepreneurship nature vs nurture. 

twitter_logo_headerI had a convoluted parenthetical here about how I wasn’t actually “following” them because I’m not on Twitter, but it seemed easier just to be on Twitter than to explain why I wasn’t.

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