Beware Drug Companies that Pretend to Be Your Social Media Friend

Technology is a wonderful thing. Most of us rely on it to do our jobs, remain informed, communicate and plan and participate in recreational activities.

But like a wonder drug that can render a dread disease a manageable irritant, technology has side effects and some of them are dark, indeed. Writing on his health news blog, Gary Schwitzer recounts the ominous tale of a pharmaceutical company’s sly efforts to pretend to be a Facebook friend but whose motives were clearly mercenary.

Marilyn Mann is a well-informed medical consumer; she has to be, she’s a breast cancer survivor whose daughter has heterozygous familial hypercholesterolemia (FH), a genetic disease that elevates LDL cholesterol to dangerous levels. She is an administrator of a Facebook group–Familial Hypercholesterolemia (FH) Discussion Group–that enables networking for people with FH and their family members.

Schwitzer reports that recently, Mann got a message from a public relations woman who had joined the Facebook page: “A few months ago, I had emailed you about some research I was doing about a new treatment for FH. I am now working with a pharmaceutical company, and the company currently has a drug in development to help treat people with severe FH that may not be responding to current therapies.”

The PR woman continued: “I am trying to do exactly what you are doing–to educate patients and physicians about this disease and to raise awareness so that undiagnosed patients can get the help they need. … I thought it might be good for us to connect so that I can explain to you a little about what the company is doing and to see how we can work together to reach a larger audience. Through my work in FH, I am regularly in touch with many of the world’s leading researchers and the people who work at the company to discuss ways we might be able to collaborate….”

On its face, the approach was friendly and compassionate. Mann spoke with the PR woman, who disclosed that she was working for Genzyme, the company developing the drug to treat FH. The woman wanted Mann to recruit journalists to generate stories about people with FH.

Mann politely declined, saying, “Genzyme’s purpose is to sell their products. My purpose is to help patients. Those two goals are not the same.”

Not only was the PR person actively trying to manipulate the news–there’s a difference between raising awareness about a disorder most people never heard of and working to ensure your employer has skin in the game–but her behavior could be seen as a form of electronic stalking. “I think it was creepy for this PR woman to join the Facebook page,”Mann told Schwitzer, “lurking there and observing on behalf of her drug company client. The idea of having a drug company planting human interest stories in the press is yucky …a big corporation pulling string behind the scenes. I’m not interested in being used in that way.”

As the informed person she is, Mann knew about the Genzyme drug, believed it had limitations based on trials and so informed the PR person.

The PR rep had clearly identified herself, her employer and the nature of her interest in the Facebook community. So why was her attempt to exploit it so unseemly?

As Schwitzer noted, it wasn’t just the attempt to join a discussion group because of its potential usefulness for a certain company, it was the attempt to influence news coverage that that was so offensive. Whether you’re voting for your local school board, signing a legal contract or making a determination about treatment for a medical condition, you need objective, complete information. Such decisions aren’t made by listening to feel-good human interest stories.

Genzyme intended its FH drug not as first-line therapy, but as an additional treatment for people whose cholesterol is not controlled with a statin. Typically, those patients have the most severe forms of FH. It is their stories Genzyme wants the media to tell, not those of people who can control their cholesterol with a statin–they don’t need another drug.

Schwitzer says tactics like those of Genzyme might fall under the category of “disease mongering,” an effort to “sell” sickness by profit-driven interests beyond the boundaries of what science and medicine accept. The subject is well covered in PloS Medicine by writers Ray Moynihan and David Henry. The point, they say, is to sell products, not to inform, educate or otherwise help medical consumers understand and maintain their health.

If you’re a member of a medical-topic social media group, be aware that sometimes a fox gains entry to the henhouse with very little commotion. If you’re asked to tell your story, or to find other people who will, make sure it’s for the greater good, and not just somebody’s bottom line.

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