Pharmaceutical companies are getting caught in a regulatory quagmire when it comes to social media in Canada.

Outdated Health Canada regulations that only concern themselves with determining if an activity is considered "advertising" or "informational" leave a lot of blurred ilnes that don't seem to be coming into focus any time soon.

Blogger and social media consultant Nat Bourre attended the inaugural eMarketing Canada conference in Toronto on November 1-2 and offered up a post that shows where PAAB's (Pharmaceutical Advertising Advisory Board) thinking is around the incorporation of social media within the regulatory framework as laid out by Health Canada:

Patrick Massad (Chief Review Officer at the PAAB, Pharmaceutical Advertising Advisory Board) presented an algorithm to facilitate the regulatory thought process when planning a social media promotional activity.  Here is the suggested algorithm:

1) Is this advertising?

2) Who is the intended audience?

3) What restrictions should I consider for this audience with respect to disease and product schedules?

4) What mechanism will I use to limit access to that audience?

5) What is the sponsor’s tolerance for uncertainty & risk?

6) How will I align the site with this tolerance level?

7) What are the regulatory consequences of adding and/or linking other tools/content to my site?

There's a problem with the starting point of this algorithm.  By its very nature social media will always be advertising according to the Health Canada definition. (It's inexcusable that the current regulations were written in 1996, with an administrative update in 2005.)

Health Canada needs to look hard at social media as a new communications experience for consumers that can’t simply be defined as purely promotional or purely informational. Consumers don’t care about that. They care that they can find the right information at the right time in the right way. If they are informing themselves about their treatment options they want to look at manufacturers' information, patient groups, news, journals in order to form an opinion.  Look at the stats:

  • 70 per cent of Canadian internet users look for health/medical information (Canadian Internet Project)
  • 70 per cent of global internet users trust branded websites and consumer opinions (Nielsen

It's time Canadian regulators look at rules for social media so that it can serve the best interests of the consumer.  We've always had different rules from the US, so I sure hope they aren't waiting for the US FDA to take the lead on this...though they are much further ahead in their deliberations.

(Disclosure:  H&K works with pharmaceutical companies on a daily basis.  I've had two social media sites pulled down by Health Canada due to lack of clarity on regulations.  These news sites only included compliant news releases and videos that are still available on the web in other places.)