David Kerr: Saving the world–pharma dips a toe into social media gaming for health

David Kerr“I’m afraid I’m currently out of the office right now on the never-ending mission to restore world health—I am very interested in your message and will endeavour to reply to it as soon as I am back.” This rather immodest response to my request to sign up to a new soon-to-be launched on-line game (http://www.syrum-game.com) was signed by the lead character, Professor Syrum. Syrum will be a social game on Facebook which will allow participants to take control of their own pharmaceutical company. The aim is to equip and use a laboratory to discover new drugs, bringing them to market to improve global health, or as the learned professor puts it—“the health of the world is at stake and you are the only one that can save us.”

The unusual feature of this particular game is that it has been created by the pharmaceutical company, Boehringer Ingelheim. As well as developing new drugs to attack deadly diseases, players will also take part in clinical trials and learn about the processes involved in patent applications. This venture into the world of social gaming is the latest attempt by pharma to deal with the “reputation challenges” of having a presence on social media. Currently the elephant in the social media room is the lack of a consistent regulatory view on how pharma should behave on-line. The only guidance available (in draft form) is around describing appropriate responses to unsolicited requests for off-label information about prescription drugs and medical devices. However, perceived wisdom indicates that in the future, industry will need to self-regulate its behaviour on social media. This may not be unreasonable as Pharma companies already spend huge amounts of time, effort, and resources on protecting their brands using aggressive surveillance litigation (NEJM 2010; 363; 2087-9).

Why is the pharmaceutical industry turning their attention to social gaming? Part of the reason is obvious given the success of Angry Birds and similar games, which provide access to millions of people and importantly, are engaging enough for players to return time after time. However, if medical social gaming is to be successful, a key challenge will be the ability to assess the impact of a social media presence i.e. what are people actually saying on-line? Scrutinising social media content by commercial companies is already happening outside of healthcare. For example the Gatorade Company has a “mission control centre” where people monitor, in real-time, discussions of the companies products on social media sites and in some cases post responses.  Although this feels very “big brotherish,” this approach does have the potential for public health to pick up previously unrecognised adverse events related to new medicines by following on-line comment from users. The alternative is for little or no progress to be made around assessing the value of social medical for medical care if industry fails to embrace the new media whilst waiting for formal regulatory guidance and regulatory bodies are unable to come up with coherent and practical guidance.

So does the pharmaceutical leopard have the ability to change its spots and adopt a more holistic approach beyond using social media as a vehicle for on-line marketing? One additional noteworthy comment from Professor Syrum suggests that there may still obstacles in the mind-set of marketers to be overcome if industry is to shed its darker side—as well as being able to “share your adventure and collaborate with your friends,” players can also “send gifts to decorate their laboratory and use smartphone’s locative capabilities to earn in-game rewards.” Plus ca change!

David Kerr wears many hats, sometimes at the same time—diabetologist, editor of Diabetes Digest, researcher, and founder of VoyageMD.com, a free service for travellers with diabetes and Mylyfe.me a service for women surviving breast cancer. He also believes that social media has the potential to be of huge benefit in improving medical care and practice. He also holds a small amount of stock in CellNovo (a new insulin pump company) and Axon Telehealth.