4. Digital communication channels
Digital communication channels
Laws and regulations do not yet extensively cover digital media communication. One may say that the rapid rise in online promotional opportunities has caught many regulators off guard. In the absence of concrete rules, regulators have approached online activities from the perspective of the general principles of advertising, adapting them to fit the online environment. Given its increased importance, this is an area where further regulatory developments are expected to occur. Patient support programmes such as online patient support platforms and applications, as well as knowledge platforms for HCPs continue to grow in relevance. This remains a grey area, however, there are increasingly provisions in legislation to address this area. See box below for an example.
Adapted from: Chambers Practice Guides ‘Pharmaceutical Advertising 2021 Comparisons’
7.2 Advertising of Medicines on social media
The advertising of medicines on social networks is governed by the charter of the ANSM on the communication and promotion of health products on the internet and on e-media.
This charter specifies that the inherent functionalities of social networks lead to linking page content to comments and messages, the content of which is free and not controllable. Consequently, advertising of a medicinal product to the general public in the form of a “products” page is not possible on social networks, unlike the discussion forums available directly on the operator's website, as it is impossible to moderate the comments of internet users.
In addition, the “like” option available on some social networks may be perceived as an attestation of healing by the public if it is the profile of a health professional, which is contrary to the Public Health Code. However, a closed forum between health professionals on social networks is allowed if the operator intervenes through moderation of discussions.
Due to a lack of specific rules, the general restrictions apply. Unless an access control or access restriction is technically feasible, advertising of medicines on social media is limited to OTC products, as advertising for prescription-only medicinal products is not allowed to the general public.
The transition of activities to the digital space has brought about a number of industry guidance documents. Some codes of conduct are addressing communication on the internet to patients, through emails, social media etc. For instance, the code of conduct of the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association (IPHA, 2021) gives examples on how pharmaceutical companies may directly contact patients on social media. The EFPIA code, the example used for this lesson, gives in its Annex 3, ‘Principles for the use of digital channels’, a clear overarching provision on how to use digital media:
‘A digital channel is only a platform for communicating. Laws and regulations applicable to other platforms and media also apply to digital media. The content, target group and use of the platform are relevant factors to determine applicable rules, not the media as such. Therefore, the provisions of Directive 2001/83/EC related to the Medicinal Products’ advertising and of the EFPIA Code of Practice apply to digital communication. The processing of personal data must comply with applicable data protection regulations.’
It then further covers Responsibilities, Pharmacovigilance, Transparency, advises on ‘How to identify the allowed information for the different digital channels’ and gives guidance for various digital channels, like Websites, social media, blogs, podcasts and applications (Apps).
In particular situations, both patient and healthcare professional can choose to receive messages from the pharmaceutical company, such as a reminder, through social networks, to prompt the patient to regularly take their prescribed medication. This form of digital communication is considered as supporting patient adherence with non-promotional messages.
 IPHA Code of Practice for the Pharmaceutical Industry (2021) https://2hmcriw3psofj2qo3f8w6f17-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/IPHA-Code-of-Practice-for-the-Pharmaceutical-Industry-V8.5_effective-01.03.21.....pdf