Interview with AstraZeneca’s Earl Whipple

Earl Whipple

Earl D. Whipple is the Senior Director of Business Communications and Digital Media for AstraZeneca. In an effort to drive online visibility and digital engagement for one of the world’s leading biopharmaceutical companies, Earl and his team launched AstraZenecas first company blog and Facebook community. Today, Pixels & Pills talks to Earl about Pharmas obligation to engage in social media, corporate social responsibility, healthcare reform, and the challenges facing Pharma blogs.

By Kimberly Reyes (@CommDuCoeur)

1. In your blog, you talk about healthcare companies’ “obligation to responsibly engage in social media.” Why do you think that social media has gotten so much attention from the healthcare community, and what advice do you have for pharma to properly adopt it?

Patient health guides everything we do at AstraZeneca and we understand that a healthier world cannot come from medicines alone. People are increasingly turning to social media for information on their health and medicines but the accuracy of health and medical information varies within social media. In many cases information is outright wrong or contradictory. Pharma companies must adhere to clear regulatory guidelines by the FDA in on how they must communicate. Unfortunately those guidelines cant always keep pace in evolving mediums of communication, particularly in social media. There is an abundance of patient and consumer dialogue occurring in social media and that dialogue may include information on my company or our medicines. The challenge to patient health is that this information isnt always accurate. Waiting for the FDA to provide specific social media guidelines before a company jumps in doesnt help patients. The conversations are already occurring with or without a company participating.

Any pharma company considering entry into social media needs to assess their own risk comfort and timing not just from a corporate/legal perspective but also from a patient health perspective. Keep the priorities of patients as a top concern. Weigh corporate risk with the potential risk to patients by not joining the dialogue. We welcome the opportunity to grow the dialogue with others in our industry, and have enjoyed the opportunity to engage with those already present.

2. In a recent Pixels & Pills blog post, we pointed towards AstraZeneca’s commitment to corporate social responsibility. Why is corporate social responsibility so important to AstraZeneca, and can you provide me with some examples of your most successful programs?

Developing and making meaningful medicines is an important contribution to public health. But we also challenge ourselves to do more to not only improve healthcare but also society at large. Corporate responsibility is critically important to AstraZeneca as a sustainable, responsible business. Our Global CEO, David Brennan describes it as “a journey not a destination, because our company is only as good as the trust and confidence we earn with our stakeholders including physicians, patients, regulators, business partners, and customers. Through energy conservation, waste reduction, and other measures, were managing our environmental footprint responsibly and working to help make the world a healthier place.

  • AstraZeneca participates in the Environmental Protection Agencys (EPA) Energy Star program, implementing sustainable facilities design through LEEDǬÆ, and investing in other energy-saving technologies such as solar panels, geothermal technology, wind energy credits, and hybrid engine vehicles for our field employees. We biannually report our contributions to nonprofit organizations on our US website.
  • Employees at all our sites actively participate in recycling paper, bottles, and other office products. In addition, we provide CFLs (compact florescent light bulbs) to employees through the EPAs Change-A-Light program, Earth Day events, and energy fairs.
  • In 2009, AstraZeneca provided $769.6 million in savings to 507,475 patients in the United States last year through our AZ&Me¢‚û¬¢ Prescription Savings programs

3. In your opinion, what are the key influences of healthcare reform on the pharma industry?

AstraZeneca is proud that our industry was actively engaged and led in the health care debate by our Global CEO David Brennan, who served as Chairman of The Pharmaceutical ResearchandManufacturers of America (PhRMA) this past year. Very early in the debate we publicly shared our health care reform principles and committed to work with other innovation-based biopharma companies on health care reform.

The U.S. health care system leads the world in medical innovation but has suffered from high administrative costs, major health insurance coverage gaps, and health quality disparities. Considerable challenges remain within health care reform but the new law is an important step forward for patients and scientific and medical innovation.

4. In your November 6, 2009 blog post, you addressed some of the challenges facing pharma blogs. Can you re-iterate some of these challenges, and explain how you have used the feedback to evolve the AZ Health Connections blog?

    AstraZeneca believes our company has an obligation to participate in social media in a responsible way to help educate and empower patients, caregivers and prescribers to make informed decisions about our company and our medicines. The biggest single challenge is the ability to have real conversations on a particular disease state or on one of our medicines. I think this challenge holds true for any pharma company engaged in social media and it is not specific to just blogs. People deserve fast, accurate answers to their questions – and from live people – but comments or questions in these areas are constrained. This is not how we want things to be but until FDA regulatory guidelines address how social media can engage in this area, we have to be responsible and make the hard decisions to either not publish certain information or take more time to respond to certain comments. We wont publish questions or comments about our medicines and in when it comes to disease areas well review for accuracy, fair balance, and compliance with FDA regulations.



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