4th October 2017 by Malcolm Allison
In 1989, one of my favourite movies was released: Batman. I have always liked the idea that someone can have secret powers, and Batman fitted the bill. At the same time, the American pharmaceutical company at which I worked merged with a British competitor. The combined company based itself in Philadelphia and London. This created the illusion that it had a virtual centre somewhere over the Atlantic, an illusion that was supported by the willingness of the chief executive, Jan Leschly, to hop on a plane to wherever he was needed. We felt like we were the first truly global pharmaceutical company, and Mr Leschly, who was a media-savvy tennis champion before he turned to pharmaceuticals, seemed a bit like Batman in those days.
"Jan Leschly is a very inspirational person," said Jami Rubin, a pharmaceuticals analyst at Schroeder’s in New York at the time. "You want to buy his stock. You want to work for the guy. You believe in what he's saying. He walks in a room and the place lights up."
Perhaps those were simpler times; we did not have 24-hour news, and internet search was still 6 years away. Right now, it feels like the pharmaceutical industry is under intense scrutiny. Social media has created 2 billion news reporters, without the safeguard of editorial oversight. The pharmaceutical industry is naturally cautious about engaging in a social media environment where situations unfold at the speed of light. Events like the extraordinary drug price gouging of Martin Shkreli reverberate through the media, tarring the pharmaceutical industry along the way. Who can blame the managers of pharmaceutical companies for keeping their heads down and focusing on business?
The rise of the internet has done more than just rev up the pace of news: it has turned all of us into amateur doctors. More than 2 million internet searches are entered every minute,1 and 100,000 of these are related to health.2 In the same minute, there are also more than 100,000 tweets, of which 10–20% are driven by automated accounts that inflate the tweets’ reach and importance. I think it is inevitable that patients who can search their own diseases and identify treatment options will challenge medical experts.3 Unfortunately, entries from authenticated sources don’t always make it to the top of searches or Twitter feeds, meaning patients may receive inaccurate information about their condition.
Perhaps we don’t need a modern day Batman to come back, and make the Internet a safer place. Perhaps it is time for all of us to find our inner Batman, and write content that is honest, truthful and inspirational, to address the balance. We may not eliminate the inaccuracies but we may increase the probability that something honest will rise to the surface.
Now where did I leave my Batmobile?
1. Data In One Minute Infographic. The Location Based Marketing Association. February 2013. Available at: https://www.thelbma.com/research/55/data-in-one-minute/ [Accessed 29 June 2017]
2. Google Official Blog. A remedy for your health-related questions: health info in the Knowledge Graph. February 2015. Available at: https://googleblog.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/health-info-knowledge-graph.html [Accessed 29 June 2017]
3. Science Daily. Patients trust doctors but consult the Internet. July 2012. Available at: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/07/120706184421.htm [Accessed 29 June 2017]