Are Patient Influencers On Social Media Really A Good Thing?

It's no secret that social media influencers are often paid by companies to use their platforms to create sponsored content and promote certain products. However, this type of direct-to-consumer marketing isn't just for prominent celebrities and influencers anymore. Believe it or not, pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers are now using patient influencers to promote their products on social media (via HealthDay News).

Patient influencers are real-life patients with disabilities and chronic conditions who share their personal medical stories in order to advocate for specific brands and products on social media. Although patient influencers don't tend to have as many social media followers as celebrities and lifestyle influencers, they're often seen as more trustworthy by consumers because they have a connection to the products they're promoting (per DIA Global Forum). Because of this, patient influencers are thought of more as advocates than influencers, which is why many pharmaceutical and medical device companies recruit and invest in them.

Patient influencers raise ethical concerns

According to a new report published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, however, this type of direct-to-consumer advertising is largely unregulated and unstudied, which raises some important ethical concerns. This has prompted researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder to call for further investigation of the practice (via CU Boulder Today). While typical drug advertisements on TV or in print are heavily regulated, social media posts tend to have more leeway. Although federal agencies require patient influencers to disclose if they're being paid to promote a certain product and have regulations dictating what you're allowed and not allowed to say, the lines between ad and opinion can easily be blurred, making these rules difficult to enforce. 

As a result, patient influencers could be unintentionally spreading misinformation or leaving out crucial information about the side effects of a given drug. However, that doesn't mean that this is always the case. According to Erin Willis, an associate professor CU Boulder and co-author of the report, there is also an upside to patient influencers. For instance, patients know what it's like to experience a certain condition or side effect firsthand and this information may be able to help others find new treatments. And since social media is interactive, "there is an entire community of voices that get to weigh in on it and support it or share their negative experiences." Whether or not patient influencers are more helpful or harmful, however, is still unknown. That's why Willis and her colleagues are advocating for further research.