Social media in Spain; core to pharmaceutical innovation?

By Paul Grant

As the taxicab drew to a halt near the curb of Barcelona’s Gran Vía Les Corts Catalanes, it was immediately apparent that the driver was caught in some powerful emotions. Although the meter read approximately €30, as expected for a routine journey from the airport, the following awkward interchange ensued:

“I have a lot of respect for your company; there’s no need for you to pay”, the driver explained to his passenger, with sincerity on his face and in his eyes.

The fare insisted, “Let me pay you. Surely, it is only right that we pay for the services we receive.” After a few more comments to and fro, eventually the situation was resolved and the cab pulled away.

Such was the impact of a certain breast cancer treatment clinical trial, in which the driver’s mother had participated. Clearly the driver felt this had brought a tremendous experience for his mother and her family, and most importantly had extended her wellness and quality of life.

Anish Shindore, just three months into joining Novartis in Spain, explained that he had nothing to do with the situation; the driver’s gratitude stemmed from his admiration of the pharmaceutical giant.

“It hits you in the face”, Anish later told me. “It makes you think about what sort of industry you are working in; what sort of perceptions you have about people. In this case, this man didn’t know any one particular person in the company – he just knew the name behind the drug his mother had taken, and it had made an impact. That’s what I am really proud of.”

“We are in such an emotionally-charged industry. Actually having an impact on a life, or the way a person looks, or whether a person can breathe – I mean it is quite special in terms of knowing how many patients get treated and that we really do have an effect on society.”

Having moved into role from a service industry, Anish knew he would be in for a challenge; especially navigating through the regulatory environment and its application to social media and emerging channels for engagement. Many of the tried and tested, best-practice engagement and service-platform ideas he could bring from his career to date, would face hurdles if he attempted applying them to the pharmaceutical industry.

“In spite of that, I am happy to work in this industry. It is great to know that I am not, for instance, a soft-drink manufacturer who contributes to making people more diabetic. I feel proud to know we can help to treat people and make their lives better.”

Born into an extended family of surgeons, doctors, anesthesiologists, dermatologists and family practitioners, there are no regrets that he has found his own place in the world of social media and pharmaceutical communication; “Well, I couldn’t be a doctor but at least I am contributing to health.”

It is refreshing to hear the enthusiasm from a person like Anish Shindore. All too often we are consumed with the ‘busy-ness’ of work, that we can forget the big picture of what our small contribution can achieve.

His personal future vision is for a pharmaceutical industry that plays a vital role in supporting healthcare professionals and patients with quality information, as the health system continues to feel the strain of an aging population; “We have to help people to take care of themselves.”

Anish emphasizes that this would not mean replacing or disrupting the traditional role of doctors in diagnosis and treatment, but in further supporting their patients with the tools they could use to be empowered and educated about health. To achieve this, he recognizes that the regulatory environment may have to loosen a little more.

“People’s health is a serious and sensitive thing. When you are ill it is not the best time of your life, so we cannot be fickle or playful in the way a fashion or beauty brand may be able to innovate with social content.”

The Spanish population has a high percentage of users on Twitter relative to other European countries, and many who use Twitter also maintain a blog in addition to their other social channels. “The Spanish people are very passionate and outspoken; they want to express their opinions,” Anish explains pragmatically, “They a very good country when it comes to using a medium that is already out there. However, starting a new medium is not something for which they are well known. Adaptation is very fast, but uptake is very slow. For example Facebook really only gained momentum 3-4 years ago in Spain, yet now seemingly everyone is using it.”

When it comes to medical technology and innovation, the country has high ambitions. It was in Madrid that the first surgery with Google Glass was performed. Spain sees itself as the future EU technological hub, and the government is demonstrating a commitment to seeing that become a reality through investment in new innovation and collaboration districts, along with infrastructure to support them. Anish believes the right culture exists in Spain; the technological solutions are out there, as are the suppliers, to enable pharmaceutical innovation in many areas.

“Novartis aspires to be the most innovative pharmaceutical company. But that is not really about ‘digital’ or ‘social media’. R&D in medicines has to be our focus, not by innovating with some shiny new mobile app. Innovation is part of our culture, but it has to start with having good drugs. My role is to help us adapt to what the market is doing and add the possibility of interaction with customers.”

In spite of his passion for social engagement and community building, he himself has strategically chosen not to reopen the Facebook account that he closed in his final year of university, back when it was only possible to have an account if your email address ended in .edu

“For us and others, we are still getting too excited with social. Sure, it is the present aspect of interest, however history shows there will be equally be an opposing ‘anti-social’ movement in the next few years. We should ensure we do not get too far away from our core business; that is, what we do best.”

With eloquent wisdom, Anish Shindore gives his summary:

“The competition is still in the product, not the social media page.”

This article was originally published in Pharmaphorum.

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Meet the Author

Paul Grant