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The Role Of Social Media In Overcoming Big Pharma’s Trust Problem

By October 1, 2020February 16th, 2023No Comments
woman holding a mobile phone with social media icons coming out of it

Big pharma has a trust problem. Globally, trust in pharmaceutical companies was estimated to be at just 55% based on this 2018 study – varying greatly across the world from 85% in Indonesia to just 30% in Germany. The study also showed trust declining year-on-year, with a 13% fall in the US and a 12% drop in Germany.

Since members of the general public are not pharma companies’ customers, there might be an inclination to dismiss this as a minor PR issue. However, when it comes to clinical trials, public perception can be incredibly important.

Recruitment is the biggest challenge facing clinical trials, with 85% of studies failing to recruit enough patients. Recruitment challenges cause 80% of trials to be delayed by at least one month, impacting not only the study costs but subsequent sales, resulting in potential losses of $600,000 to $8 million per day. Trust has a huge role to play here. Only 57% of Americans say they would be likely to participate in clinical trials, with a worrying 25% believing that doctors would expose them to unnecessary risk during such a trial.

So, what can be done to improve the public’s perception of the pharmaceutical industry? Ultimately this is an issue of brand management – the way patients feel about pharmaceutical companies needs to be addressed. Increasingly, organisations are using innovations in mHealth to bridge the gap between pharma and patients, listening to and communicating with patients directly.

The Scale Of The Trust Problem

Before any solutions can be identified, pharma’s trust problem has to be fully understood. Relying on patient feedback during and after clinical trials is too limiting, as patients are inclined to give answers they think the sponsor wants to hear rather than speaking honestly and openly about their concerns, challenges, and reservations.

Social media, on the other hand, is a space where people tend to feel more comfortable in expressing their genuine feelings. Using social media listening tools allows pharma companies to analyse patient sentiment and identify specific concerns that can be addressed.

Having a clear understanding of the particular worries patients have when it comes to drugs or clinical trials informs and empowers organisations to make impactful changes to address the problems.

Finding A Solution


Lack of direct interaction with the general public puts pharmaceutical companies at a distinct disadvantage compared to other industries. The opportunity to build a relationship is limited, and the level of regulation governing what can be communicated publicly about drugs and their development means communications teams are highly restricted in their activities. However, this is another area that social media can provide great value.

By building a social media presence that highlights the people behind your company, the research progress that has been made and the innovation at work, organisations have an opportunity to enable the public to connect to their values and purpose.

Showing a more human side – through images, videos and stories – pharma companies can remove the distance between themselves and the wider public and begin to break down the perception of a faceless, emotionless corporation.

Social media can also help increase the public’s awareness of important information. According to Pharmafile:

“One of the largest and long-standing problems faced by patient recruitment is the extent to which the general public is educated about clinical trials. Going back to 2001, the Will and Why survey, commissioned by Harris Interactive in a BBK Healthcare Poll of 5000 US citizens, found that 81% of respondents were not aware of safeguards such as the Declaration of Helsinki, The Belmont Report, Institutional Review Board, and the informed consent process. Subsequently, in 2004, a similar European poll was conducted by BBK Healthcare, that found 71% were also not aware of measures taken to protect patients. Both polls indicated an increased willingness to participate in clinical trials if they were made aware of the measures.”


Another factor impacting patient trust is a lack of clarity in documentation and communications. Patients who drop out of clinical trials are twice as likely to report that it was difficult to understand the informed consent form than those who complete the trial. Even among those who complete the trial, 1 in 6 said they found the ICF (Informed Consent Form) challenging.

In addition to addressing the accessibility of language used in patient-facing resources, pharma companies can also improve their overall accessibility for patients. Social media opens a direct channel of communication patients can use to ask questions and receive direct responses and support. This activity can also help identify common areas in which patients are becoming confused or disengaged in order to make informed, actionable changes.

What’s more, participating in wider social media dialogue with members of the public can help organisations speak their language and understand how to better communicate complex concepts to patients in future.


Significant progress has been made in putting patients’ needs and concerns at the heart of clinical trials. The importance of patient-centricity is becoming increasingly evident, with research finding that drugs developed using patient-centric trial designs are 19% more likely to be launched than non-patient-centric trials (87% versus 68%).

By using social media to talk about and promote patient-centric advances in clinical trial design – as well as identify key patient concerns and questions – pharma companies have an opportunity to better understand their existing patients and potential trial participants. Both elements of study design and communication strategies can be adapted to be more effective based on this insight.

Digital technology offers the pharmaceutical industry many opportunities to reach, educate and connect with patients, from apps and virtual consultations to gamification and animations. Social media opens up a direct channel between companies and the general public and offers potential for greater understanding on both sides. In order to break down pharma’s trust issues that are becoming ever-more pervasive globally, companies have a responsibility to commit to better and more effective communication with the people that matter to their business.

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