Professor Andrew McIvor is one of a new breed of emerging ‘Digital Opinion Leaders’; healthcare experts who can influence peers, policymakers and other health stakeholders through their engagement in public social media. For this Professor of Medicine at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, it really is a brand new habit: his Facebook page, launched in May this year and with around 150 followers to date, is a platform for sharing and discussing ideas about COPD and Asthma management.
When he recently shared a BBC news story entitled “e-cigarettes ‘as good’ as patches” he invited discussion on Facebook: “I… do not promote or recommend but lots of buzz from patients and colleagues”, he responded to one comment, adding “What do other people think?” to stimulate further dialogue.
In June this year, just a week after launching his Facebook page, Prof. McIvor joined the hundreds of thousands of other healthcare professionals already using Twitter to talk about their work. His 100 or so followers to date include healthcare communications agencies, patients and other health stakeholders as well as some fellow academics and healthcare professionals.
“Professor Andrew McIvor is one of a new breed of emerging ‘Digital Opinion Leaders’…”
So when Prof. McIvor starred in Boehringer Ingelheim’s hosted Twitter chat #COPDChat, which took place during the European Respiratory Society congress on 9th September, it was not only a pharma first but certainly a first for this emerging Digital Opinion Leader too. “Thank you for joining us, we’re pioneers!” he tweeted at the end of the chat.
Figure 1: Prof. Andrew McIvor congratulates participants after the first ever pharma-KOL-public Twitter chat
Digital Opinion Leaders: new opportunities for pharma
I first mentioned the concept of Digital Opinion Leaders last year after a ‘tipping point’ was reached in healthcare professionals using public social media channels to talk about their work. Since then, the growth in doctors, nurses and pharmacists using channels such as Twitter, Google+, Facebook, blogs and forums to collaborate online in virtual networks of connected peers has provided new opportunities for pharma companies to conduct market research and develop online influencers.
The first HCP Digital Opinion Leaders included young doctors, ‘digital natives’ who used social media in their everyday lives during training and for whom these channels became a natural part of their work as HCPs. Their use of social media to rapidly learn and share information with others at any level of seniority or role in healthcare provision, allowed some to emerge as influencers well beyond their career experience.
“The first HCP Digital Opinion Leaders included young doctors, ‘digital natives’ who used social media in their everyday lives…”
Recent studies have shown increasing numbers of senior healthcare professionals using social media too. In fact, while junior doctors are currently more vocal in social media than their senior colleagues, posting high volumes of conversation, senior healthcare professionals are publishing considered posts via blogs, and are more likely to talk about specific drugs or treatments.
Developing traditional Key Opinion Leader relationships in the digital age
The development of traditional Key Opinion Leaders as digital advocates has rapidly become an established trend. Several pharmaceutical companies are now taking active steps to equip healthcare professionals to engage their peers online, including Sanofi through its Campus Sanofi initiative, which offers free training programmes to HCPs such as a course on how to use LinkedIn.
For Boehringer, the European Respiratory Society Congress provided an ideal setting to host a live Twitter chat and introduce its new ‘Digital Opinion Leader’ to the respiratory community. Through social media, the engagement reached much further afield than the meeting venue – active participants in Boehringer’s #COPDChat sent almost 200 tweets from ten different countries in four continents.
Prof. McIvor’s relative inexperience in digital engagement was no hindrance to his role in the social media collaboration with Boehringer. His participation was not about expertise in social media but rather about his authority in COPD. Just days before the European Respiratory Society congress, Pr. McIvor started using Hootsuite for the first time, a tool that integrates with Twitter and Facebook and provides an interface for participation in social media conversations. Yet along with Boehringer Ingelheim he emerged from the Twitter chat a digital pioneer, having explored new ground in pharma-KOL-public engagement.
Boehringer learns through engagement
Among the pharma companies leading the race in digital stakeholder engagement, Boehringer Ingelheim is one that keeps drawing on the changing environment to try new ideas and learn from its experiences. Having participated in social media conversations to engage oncologists earlier this year at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) congress, at ERS2013 it was among the most prolific tweeters, posting 86 tweets, a number exceeded only by the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation.
The company attracted engagement from others, too: Boehringer was the most mentioned Tweeter at ERS2013, mentioned over 380 times, far exceeding any other Twitter user at the meeting.
Twitter was not the only social media channel where the congress hashtag was used – aside from over 1,500 mentions on Twitter in the week of the congress, hashtag #ERS2013 also appeared on ten other sites and blogs, including Facebook. And Boehringer Ingelheim was also among the top five Facebook authors posting about #ERS2013, alongside Spanish health website salutedomani.com; the European Respiratory Society; healthcare professional Alexandru Muntean; and respiratory journal Thorax.
What will the result of all this engagement be for Boehringer? It now has a previously unprecedented approach to Digital Opinion Leader engagement, and has established itself as a leader when it comes to using social media at congress. Expect to see this bear fruit at future congress meetings as the company applies the lessons it has learned so far.
And for Prof. Andrew McIvor, the results have included kudos for his own digital engagement channels. “Thanks to all the new Followers and Likes on my MacCOPD Facebook page…” he tweeted the day after taking part in Boehringer’s chat.
This article was originally posted on pharmaphorum.