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Password-Protected vs. Public Forums: Weighing the Pros and Cons

Jennifer Starr

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Patients have indicated they want to be involved in online patient communities. According to an article by MM&M, patient influencers overwhelmingly indicated that interacting with social media resources would motivate them and members of their community to discuss conditions and products with others, especially a healthcare professional. Seventy-two percent felt that social media resources would motivate these discussions.  

However, when considering building an online patient community, is it more beneficial to choose a password-protected community or a completely public one? There are some important factors to consider, including privacy considerations, filing requirements, search engine optimization and value to patients.

Privacy Considerations
Password-protected forums — especially those that allow anonymous or blinded posts — provide a greater level of comfort for those who prefer to share confidential information with a selective group. For example, in the addiction treatment category, addicts, recovering addicts and caregivers are far more likely to discuss relevant topics in closed, niche forums versus Facebook or Twitter. The level of privacy and anonymity a forum provides is an important consideration in particularly sensitive or potentially embarrassing categories, such as addiction medicine, HIV, erectile dysfunction, sexually transmitted diseases or IBD, to name a few.

Filing Implications
One new consideration in choosing a private or public forum is the lengthy Form 2253 filing process required for a password-protected site submission. Sean Nicholson, senior director of social media at Intouch Solutions, explained in a recent POV that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released draft guidance on the postmarketing submission of interactive promotional media.

In situations where the pharma company is engaging in communication on publicly available sites that it does not own (e.g., third-party forums, external blogs), the FDA provided expanded submission guidance, indicating that the company should submit the homepage of the third-party site, along with the interactive page within the third-party site and the firm’s first communication at the time of initial display. It is believed that the reasoning behind this is because, in the case of public forums, the FDA can review the content at any time.

After first submission, as long as the site is publicly accessible, the company may then submit a monthly updated listing of the UGC sites for which it is responsible or in which it remains active. Multiple sites can be submitted with a single form. This alleviates the need to submit reams of screen captures of the communications, lightening the workload for pharmas, agencies and the FDA.

“However,” said Nicholson, “in situations where pharmas engage in conversations in private forums to which the FDA may not have access, the guidance requires that submissions contain full imagery and screen captures of the communications, but they can still be submitted monthly.”

Generally, FDA filing is only required if a specific treatment is referenced, triggering the need for fair balance.

“Based on my experience, I would expect [a private site submission] is a bit more challenging, yet not impossible. I suspect it takes patience, preparedness and partnership with the full sponsor team (not only the client, but also the legal/medical/regulatory reviewers, etc.) to truly commit and be effective in real-time, while still meeting the filing requirements. It also might involve process adaptations or exceptions based on the nature of the channel and content,” said Sarah Beverlin, account supervisor for Intouch.

SEO Implications
From an SEO perspective, there are negative implications for password-protected patient communities. Intouch Search Manager Terri Greene explained that password-protected sites are a hindrance to search engine crawlers because they are unable to input a password to access blocked content. But if there is no intent for the content within that site to be crawled or indexed through search engines, then a password-protected site wouldn’t pose any SEO issues.

“For example, if this particular patient community site is somewhat confidential and the intent is to keep the community more of a closed community, then having this be password-protected is totally valid,” said Greene.

At the end of the day, it’s all about intent. If bringing in traffic to a particular site through search engines is a goal, password-protected content is not a beneficial approach.

Consider Patient Needs First
There are both advantages and disadvantages of having public or private channels.  We at Intouch must weigh these pros and cons and determine the best direction for our clients based on their individual goals and needs.  One thing is clear though: patients have shown an active interest in being involved in online communities and that trend will only increase over the years.  In fact, in a recent Truvio study, 21 out of 29 participants felt that social media resources sponsored by pharma are very likely to motivate the right people to share or discuss content with others.


Graphic reused with permission from WEGO Health

As patients become even more active in social media forums and as the FDA continues to provide more clarity, pharmaceutical companies will increasingly consider providing or participating in these forums themselves. A careful understanding and weighing of the pros and cons will help ensure that both brand and patient needs are met in the process.

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