How Social Media Can Help Tackle Depression

Robin Williams’ death last year left the world stunned. How can a man who had so much ‘going’ for him take his own life? How can a man who made millions laugh could not bring himself out of a seemingly ‘bad mood’? Williams was suffering from depression, a condition so debilitating that if left unchecked could lead an otherwise healthy person to commit suicide. The incident is a wake-up call for the healthcare community as it is predicted by WHO that depression is projected to become the second leading contributor to the global burden of disease by 2020. The event has certainly brought a lot of attention on the issue but I believe a lot more needs to be done. In this post I talk about how social media can play a role in addressing the condition.

A model created by Eric Horovitz , Data Scientist at Microsoft Research can detect and predict whether an individual will have depression based on his/her Twitter feed. Koko, a social network created for people with depression assists users to crowdsource help to combat negative thinking, one of the major symptoms of depression. While these are excellent initiatives, social media can be further leveraged. Here are some use cases that highlight how social media can augment traditional methods of tackling the condition:

  • Campaigns to educate: The stigma attached with mental illnesses has made it hard for people to talk about it openly. Creating awareness and establishing platforms to educate general public is the first step towards removing the stigma. Since social media has enormous reach it can be used to launch campaigns highlighting the myths, treatment options and help centres related with depression. For e.g. Twitter campaigns can be organized to encourage people including patients, family members, friends, doctors, psychologists to talk about their experiences. This open dialogue can not only help remove stigma but can also lead to previously unknown insights to deal with the condition.
  • Identify ideal treatment: According to WebMD there are multiple ways to treat depression. The choice of treatment depends on a number of factors such as type, stress, early life experiences, genetics etc. The perfect fit can be tailored if all the patient data is available. Medical reports, patient reported data has been traditionally available but the missing piece was patient behavioural data. Social platforms such as Koko would enable access to patient behavioural data that could deliver meaningful insights to create an ideal treatment plan.
  • Recruit patients for clinical trials: Despite massive efforts, CROs have failed to meet the patient recruitment target. One of the major barriers is that patients generally consider clinical trials risky and therefore do not enrol in them. With the advent and use of social media and the rise of e-Patients and e-caregivers we can easily overcome the barrier. This group of e-patients and e-caregivers are a new informed breed who is well aware of the risks/rewards of trails. They are 60% more likely to participate in trials and therefore social media websites can be a great tool to support trial recruitment.
  • New source for patient research: Patient blogs are a rich source of information that is not available elsewhere. Mining patient blogs (with the permission of the owner) can help discover unique behavioural patterns which could be a major boon to comparative effectiveness research and for public health.


In words of Robin Williams “No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world”. What is your idea? How can social media change the way we deal with depression?

Pharma & Social Media : A Strengthening Relationship

As one of the most heavily regulated industries, it has not been easy for pharma to incorporate social media into their business. Recently, the FDA delivered the The Social Media Draft Guidance Webinar clarifying the rules pharma companies need to adhere to while engaging on social channels. Although not exhaustive, the initiative has provided the much needed buoyancy to the lukewarm efforts of pharma on various social platforms.

Johnson & Johnson is a leading example of how a pharma brand has successfully used social channels not only to improve its brand presence but also to start dialogues on some of the pressing issues in healthcare. The firm has been active on traditional social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube where it essentially shares content to increase awareness of diseases, promote understanding of various research studies and recommend health related articles. In addition, the company was also quick to utilize the non-traditional social channels such as Pinterest to further support its campaign for nursing. Here are some ways in which phrama can further enrich its partnership with social media–


  • Patient and HCP Activity: It is observed that most online health communities are centred around patients, care givers and health care professionals. While patients and care givers use online forums to search information and seek support, HCPs use them for social networking, gather patient info, share views on current research and concerns over treatments. Drug companies can dig this data to learn about patient and physician behaviour. This would help them identify and increase the relevance of their communication. For instance if multiple patients are reporting certain side effects of a drug that couldn’t be identified during the drug discovery process, pharma companies can take note of it and incorporate this information on their labels. In addition, pharma can use these channels to collaborate with key opinion leaders to effectively position and target its drugs.


  • Crises management: Among other things patients use social platforms to discuss side effects of the drugs they are using. Of these side effects, there are some that would require further investigation for possible adverse event reporting. Pharma companies can put analytics to use to identify such events and report to FDA which mandates adverse event reporting.


  • Education: In light of lack of trust in between patients and pharma companies it has become crucial to improve this image. One way of doing so is through education. For instance firms can create interactive social media content that would explain the public about overall costs needed to develop a drug. Additionally through Facebook, Twitter, Youtube firms can share insights on disease condition that aims at making people more aware of them and hence better tackle them.


  • Crowdsourcing: The wisdom of crowds to solve problems has become very popular in other industries but not as much in pharma. Social media allows for a much wider audience’s (patients, GPs, nurses, scientists) collective expertise to find solutions to issues that cannot be solved by individual specialist groups. For example a translational science institute utilized crowdsourcing technique to reduce inefficiencies in the drug discovery process which in turn decreased the cost of drugs and also helped in a speedier drug adoption. Another glowing example is the website PatientsLikeMe that basically crowd sources patient outcomes.
  • Clinical Trial Improvement: By listening to what patients are talking about on social media, pharma companies can get insights on clinical trial program planning. These insights would help them make faster trial enrolment and trials more accessible to patients that need them.

The use of social media in pharma is essentially to develop and nurture stakeholder (patients,HCPs) relationships. Being heavily regulated, pharma needs to be very vigilant about how it does that.  Probably the ‘Listen more than you speak’ approach seems like the most viable option for now.

Social Media in Healthcare – A Strong Value Proposition

Social Media is number one reason why people use internet today. Consumers are increasingly turning to social media to educate themselves, give feedback on products and engage with other consumers. According to a PWC consumer survey, nearly one third of the people surveyed use social media for health related discussions. Here are a few more findings from the study-

  • 45% of the participants would seek second opinion based on health information found on social media
  • 75% would want a response within a day to requests initiated via social media
  • 33% of the consumers are ready to have their social media health interactions monitored, provided they get something in return

Given above data points the influence of social is far reaching and organizations can no longer be passive participants. In fact, the biggest risk with social now is ignoring it. Until now healthcare sector has been essentially using social platforms for listening with little activity on the engagement front. With early adopters such as Aetna, Mayo Clinic, Johnson & Johnson demonstrating the benefits of social engagement, this is fast changing. Group Worldwide Chairman, Johnson & Johnson, Sandra Peterson states – “We fundamentally changed our approach to marketing to put social at the core. Yes, we still do TV advertising, but everything we do now has to be social”. Clearly, the case for social is very strong. Here are some of the ways of healthcare organizations can augment social in their current business strategy:


One clear advantage of social media is that the data is real time. Understanding this data enables firms to get the pulse of the market. For instance pharma companies can track adverse events, physicians can monitor patient activity and payers can gauge the general sentiment of their brand. Monitoring social media also helps companies to pinpoint any particular negative publicity and therefore address it quickly.


While monitoring allows listening, it is responding that helps engage stakeholders. As social media allows real-time monitoring, it is now possible to respond quickly to queries, concerns and feedbacks generated by consumers. Patient population is very active on social portals that help them book appointments, rate services and share experiences in their social circle. Physician participation on these portals will not only help them manage their own reputation but also curb misinformation to spread.


Social media acts like a megaphone. It has the capacity to transcend boundaries and reach millions within a short span of time. Healthcare stakeholders should take advantage of this aspect by identifying influencers and utilizing their clout to reach target audience. For example – patients are most likely to trust their physicians. Hence payers & pharma companies can get doctors to endorse their brands on social media to reach a wider consumer base.


Using social, healthcare stakeholders can lead patients to promote behavioural changes. Social healthcare mobile apps are combining gamification concepts to ensure users stick to their fitness routines.  Payers can use this data to link to insurance premiums charged to their customers. Crowdsourcing is another application of social in which firms can create platforms to encourage patients/consumers to contribute ideas to improve current offerings and get rewards in return.

Although incorporating social media in business strategy looks very promising, it is not without hurdles. There are legal, technical and regulatory roadblocks that need to be taken care of for social to work in the healthcare space. In my subsequent blog posts I will write more about how each stakeholder in the healthcare arena can benefit from social and also the challenges they may face in the process.