Simon Smith

Scalable solutions to meaningful problems—digital strategy, digital health and random musings

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There’s no Moore’s Law for people

Moore’s Law continues to be applied broadly with fairly good success. First we thought that only the number of transistors on a chip grew exponentially. Then we started to see the same phenomena in other technology. Then we extended it to natural phenomena, even cosmology, and saw some success there.

But I’m not sure it applies to individual people. Because the older I get, the more I realize people’s life trajectories are difficult to predict (including my own). I’ve seen people going down a path to criminality suddenly find religion, and people dedicated to a career path suddenly drop out of the rat race and work for social justice causes.

In hindsight, there may have been signs. Perhaps the changes were clear reactions to the previous situation, or perhaps everything was rooted in a common cause (psychological or otherwise) that, if more fully understood, would allow more complete prediction.

But maybe, on an individual basis (although possibly less so for groups), people are inherently unpredictable. We’re chaotic systems, fully of randomness and irrationality, and as such can have unintended and unpredictable responses to stimuli over the long-term. The best we can do, perhaps, is try to understand ourselves, chart a course and try to consciously navigate it, doing our best to hold true to our vision while adapting as needed.

As for forecasting the future, perhaps we should stick to easy things like the emergence of artificial superintelligence and the fate of the universe, and expend less energy on the possibly impossible task of anticipating someone’s destiny based on what we know about them now.

Vitamin D is essential for health, and you’re probably deficient

Sun and sunflower

Your body generates vitamin D in sunlight, but you’re unlikely to have anywhere near levels associated with improved health

I’m not a good bleeder. I once tried to give blood and they unhooked me because they thought I’d pass out. I also nearly passed out when my wife had a c-section and the anesthesiologist butchered her increasingly bloody hand while jamming in the IV.

So, while I’m working to overcome my blood phobia, it was no easy task for me to bleed all over the mail-in vitamin D test (that’s not an affiliate link, just a really cool product) I recently ordered. But I had to, because for the past three months I’ve been taking over 11 times the recommended daily allowance of vitamin D. And I needed to know whether it was working—and whether I was taking too much.

This was all part of my 2013 New Year’s health resolutions. One of my goals was to begin more aggressive supplementation, and I now take Life Extension Foundation multivitamins, omega 3 supplements, coenzyme Q10, SAMe and vitamin D3 supplements. My total vitamin D3 intake is 7,000 IU, which is about 11.7 times higher than Health Canada’s RDA of 600 IU, and 3,000 IU higher than their tolerable upper intake level of 4,000 IU.

Vitamin D benefits: evidence mounts

Why so much vitamin D? There is now a plethora of evidence linking vitamin D3 deficiency with poorer health, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, cancer, respiratory infection, stroke and overall higher mortality. There is also evidence of a protective effect for vitamin D against Multiple Sclerosis, and a link between higher serum vitamin D and lower Parkinson’s disease risk.

In northern areas—such as Toronto, where I live—vitamin D deficiency is more common due to less sunlight, and this can be exacerbated by sunscreen use. So I decided to follow Life Extension Foundation’s advice, take 7,000 IU total each day, and test my blood levels regularly to stay safe.

The optimal level of serum vitamin D appears to be 50-80 ng/mL. Above 100 ng/mL is associated with increased risks of atrial fibrillation. Since I’m taking 11.7 times the RDA, you would expect that I would be at least in the healthy range.

So am I?

Lots of supplements, yet still suboptimal


According to my serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D test results, I’m at 40 ng/mL. Not entirely deficient, but definitely not optimal.

And I’m certainly not alone. In fact, 85% of Life Extension Foundation members were found in a 2010 study to have suboptimal vitamin D levels. And these people are fanatical about their health.

So if you aren’t already taking vitamin D supplements and regularly testing your blood levels (as challenging as that can be), you might want to consider it. Vitamin D is cheap, and while only a blood test can say for sure, my experience suggests you’re highly unlikely to overdose—and much more likely to be deficient.

Image credit: Lυвαιв

Denied life insurance: the follow-up to my successful appeal

About a year ago, I wrote about a scary life insurance denial and subsequent successful appeal.

The denial was based on a misinterpretation of a liver enzyme panel. At the time, I argued that elevated liver enzymes were likely related to high-intensity resistance training, which research has shown can increase certain liver enzymes that are sometimes but  clearly not always associated with pathology.

Recently, I put that theory to the test. My physician ordered another blood test. Two weeks before I took it, I changed my workout routine to include only bodyweight resistance training (pushups, sit-ups, etc.). And for a few days before the blood test, I avoided strenuous exercise completely.

I changed nothing else in my diet or lifestyle.

Lo and behold, my results were fine. Liver enzymes previously elevated and of concern were in the normal range.

My doctor said that it’s likely I’m one of those people who will have ups and downs on liver enzyme tests over time, and that this isn’t a concern except for insurance applications.

I, however, am fairly confident that this moderately controlled test supports my original hypothesis.

So if you’ve been denied life insurance due to the results of a liver panel, consider whether your workouts are to blame, and appeal accordingly.

Further forays into personal outsourcing: first use of a virtual assistant

I’m a big fan of Timothy Ferriss’ 4-Hour Workweek, which aligns with my drive for ever-increasing personal effectiveness. The overall approach of define, eliminate, automate and liberate makes sense to me, and the use of technology and outsourcing to free up time for higher-order and higher-value activities is something I pursue aggressively.

Yet, despite this, I’ve yet to engage a virtual personal assistant. I’ve explored the options, but often felt services required too much commitment up front, such as buying a bucket of monthly hours to use. I have used vendors such as Grocery Gateway to outsource specific tasks. But nothing more comprehensive.

A small task: research sunscreens

Last week, I took my first small step into using a virtual personal assistant by engaging someone on Fiverr to conduct research into face sunscreens. Possibly not the most compelling subject, but something I had on my to-do list that could be easily outsourced with minimal risk. I gave instructions consisting primarily of the following:

  1. Research the best day face cream that meets the following criteria:
    1. Efficacy: Provides good UVA/UVB protection (minimum SPF of 15)
    2. Safety: Has a good health profile with low toxicity; look at and
    3. Availability: Is ideally available at (from where I order personal care items)
  2. Write a summary of the research and recommend three day creams that best meet the above criteria

Today, in response to the request, I received the following research, which I’m posting verbatim. Judge the quality for yourself:

There are several things to consider when selecting a good day cream for the face. Ultraviolet A and B protection and toxicity of ingredients are two factors that should be considered over price. However, finding a good face day cream that is affordable, low in toxicity, great for all skin types, and provides adequate UVA and UVB protection is a definite bonus. Three face day creams that meet all these requirements are:

  • Cetaphil Daily Facial Moisturizer with Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF15: This moisturizer is suitable for all skin types and is priced under $15. It is fragrance free and does not clog the pores. It has an overall health rating of 3. The ingredients of concern that determined its health rating are octocrylene, glyceryl stearate/peg-100 stearate, phenoxyethanol, benzyl alcohol, tocopheryl acetate, and triethanolamine.
  • Desert Essence Gentle Nourishing Day Cream with SPF 15: This face day cream is affordably priced at under $20 and is suitable for all skin types. It has an overall health rating of 3 and the ingredient of concern is sodium hydroxide.
  • La Roche-Posay Hydraphase UV with SPF 30: This intense formulation that is a light and non-clogging moisturizer is suitable for all skin types. It costs about $40 and is doubled the SPF of most face day creams at SPF 30. The product has an overall health rating of 4 and the main ingredient of concern is fragrance. However, other ingredients of concern are homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, dimethicone, peg-12 dimethicone, triethanolamine, and phenoxyethanol.

Positive return on investment

Overall, I’m satisfied with the results. I already knew about the Desert Essence product, but the other two are new to me. The research addressed exactly what I had asked, and all the products are available at

The cost of outsourcing this task was $5. Placing the order took about 5-10 minutes (and will hopefully become more efficient when Fiverr rolls out a better mobile experience). The work would likely have taken at least 30 minutes. A minute of my time is worth at least $2.50 and $4.17 in the open market, based on the rate I can bill as a consultant. If I take an average of $3.34, my total cost was no more than $38.40, and my saving in time was worth $100.20. So my return on investment was about 161%.

I imagine that this should improve further as I become more efficient at the process and identify more complex tasks to outsource. But 161% ROI is already compelling. And while I could have done the work myself at no monetary cost, finding such time between my day job (for which I travel regularly), my hobby projects and my family (one three year old, another child on the way) isn’t easy.

The next step for me is to identify more tasks I can outsource, while working to build trust with specific personal assistants. Trust is obviously critical for personal tasks, and I wonder whether Fiverr (which is more about single transactions) provides the right platform for building long-term, trusted relationships. Time will tell but, for now, it’s a great platform for further experiments in outsourcing, which I intend to continue conducting vigorously.

Marketing to Dr. Watson: Here’s how we might use data to influence machines

(Cross-posted from Klick Health blog.)

This past week, IBM’s Jeopardy-winning AI Watson furthered its medical career with new jobs that could significantly disrupt healthcare and permanently shift pharmaceutical marketing practices.

That might seem dramatic given Watson’s humble start as a game show contestant. But ever since it (I keep struggling to not say “he”) trounced the world’s best Jeopardy players, I’ve followed its rapid progress from Alex Trebek’s stage through medical education and now into gainful employment. With each step, I’ve become increasingly convinced that Watson and systems like it will drive or at least facilitate fundamental changes in healthcare—and healthcare marketing. So how might we respond?

From Jeopardy to oncology

For those who don’t know, it was reported this week that Watson will officially begin work helping doctors diagnose and treat patients, while helping insurers evaluate treatment coverage. This follows many months of Watson getting educated in medicine. For oncology, Watson was trained by the world’s best oncologists and has effectively consumed, as I understand it, every piece of useful data on the topic, including the latest research—with which it stays continuously up to date. It then uses the same approach it used on Jeopardy to apply that knowledge to diagnosis and treatment.

Physicians give Watson a case, just as Trebek gave it an answer, and Watson gives them diagnostic and treatment recommendations with varying probabilities of correctness. (Example: A 95% chance that, based on the information provided, a person has prostate cancer.) Physicians then choose to agree or disagree with Watson. But, as one oncologist noted during a pilot, it’s hard to disagree with a system that knows exponentially more than you, is trained by the world’s best physicians, and is completely up to date with the latest research.

And Watson isn’t the only system showing promise at improving diagnosis and treatment while reducing costs. Also this past week, Indiana University researchers reported on predictive modelling techniques that improve patient outcomes by 40% and reduce treatment costs by 50%.

Towards a new discipline: “Artificial Intelligence Optimization”

While the creators of these systems take pains to say they’re not displacing doctors, just augmenting them, I consider that political correctness rather than fact. With soaring costs, doctor shortages and challenges for doctors to keep pace with the increasing volume of research and data, it seems inevitable that a shift to artificially intelligent doctors will occur—especially since their “brain” can be distributed as software or made available via the cloud. (At the most controversial end of the spectrum, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla says machines will do 80% of what doctors currently do.)

Such a shift is already happening with web- and smartphone-based consumer tools. For example, Symcat provides patients with free big data-driven diagnoses, Medify provides patients with disease and treatment guidance based on evaluation of published research, and Treato, which I’ve written about previously, analyzes social media conversation to determine what real patients think of treatments.

If the shift towards machine-driven diagnostics and treatment, and away from physician-driven, continues, it could have a significant impact on pharmaceutical marketing. How do you influence an algorithm?

From my perspective, the common thread through these services is their reliance on data–structured and unstructured. Hence the focus of pharmaceutical marketing might need to shift increasingly towardsmaximizing the generation and digital distribution of data that improves appropriate diagnosis and treatment of patients who can benefit from an intervention. For example, investment might be warranted in:

  • Additional clinical trials that result in published data Watson and other systems can use for diagnostic, treatment and insurance recommendations
  • Encouraging patients to talk openly (in a compliant way, of course) in public forums about their positive experiences with a treatment, so social media aggregators pick up and analyze the posts
  • Data monitoring to identify and address prospective negative data that could adversely impact treatment usage

Of course, these are just some early thoughts. I imagine that as this trend hastens, we’ll develop dedicated disciplines to optimize data for artificial intelligence and analytics engines the way we currently optimize content for search engines. The good news is that, overall, this should improve the application of data to diagnosing and treating patients, while helping address ballooning healthcare costs. The challenge is that the path is uncertain; Watson is an amazing diagnostician, but it can’t predict the future.

At least not yet.

The risk of other people’s platforms

(Cross-posted from the Klick Health blog.)

A few weeks ago, I received an alarming email from Twitter stating that my account was suspended for impersonation. At first, I thought it was spam. But after navigating to my Twitter profile and seeing an account suspension notice, I went into panic mode.

I’m by no means a huge Twitter user, but like many people and brands, I use it to connect and communicate with an audience, and have cultivated a presence on the platform for more than four years—all the while dutifully staying within the boundaries of Twitter etiquette and rules. Losing my account felt like being evicted from a house that I built.

It was, however, a house that I built on someone else’s land. And being so abruptly removed was a reminder of the risky path many brands walk by putting too many eggs in other people’s baskets—be it Twitter, Facebook or YouTube.

My Twitter suspension email, apparently for impersonating myself. After a few emails to support, my account was reinstated, but with no explanation.

What’s your company’s AOL keyword?

I often hear marketing managers talk with reverence about platforms like Facebook and YouTube while grudgingly acknowledging that they need a website at all. Some companies go so far as to redirect their domain to their Facebook page, and Facebook reps have talked about a future in which companies with Facebook pages won’t need websites.

And it seems appealing. Who wants to maintain a website when companies like Facebook give you the tools to communicate and engage directly with your audience? Free? (And pharma is by no means exempt; an increasing number of pharma brands are launching branded Facebook and YouTube pages, albeit with modifications such as removing comments to avoid regulatory issues.)

But I’ve seen this story before, and it doesn’t end well for brands. Remember AOL keywords? In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed like every brand was promoting its AOL keyword rather than its own URL. How about MySpace?  Today, it’s Facebook pages and Twitter hashtags. Tomorrow it will besomething else.

The risks of relying on other people’s platforms are many. As I experienced, you can be shut down, with little recourse. Even if not, you’re  investing in building content on someone else’s platform that doesn’t benefit your owned properties (for example, by increasing your inbound links and search engine rank). Then there’s the bait-and-switch, whereby platforms tweak their original offering to the point where brands find themselves increasingly paying for what was originally free exposure. Perhaps most importantly, yesterday’s hot social network is today’s viral joke; all that investment is wasted if users turn elsewhere, and history suggests they will—while websites endure.

Spokes are fine, as long as there’s a hub

Social media should drive traffic to your website—not usurp it—as shown in this hub and spoke model.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been entirely heeding my own advice. At the time my Twitter account was suspended, I had let my personal blog lag. I wanted to tell the world about the incident, and see who could help. But I had few blog readers who would listen.

Fortunately, I still had Facebook and email. So, after using them to track down a Twitter contact, and submitting a formal appeal through Twitter online, my account was eventually reinstated—albeit with little explanation. (It probably helped that they accused me of impersonation, but the domain name of my personal email address,, is the same as my Twitter username, @simonsmith.)

The experience reinforced to me the value of the hub and spoke digital marketing model. Other people’s platforms—the spokes—can certainly be useful in achieving your marketing objectives. But it’s critical to diversify—a wheel with two spokes will collapse—and to develop a strong hub to which the spokes drive traffic.

And never rely on just one platform. Because one day, you could be kicked off.

Mobile ownership in different demographics (and its impact on pharma marketing)

I recently published my first official POV whitepaper, “Mobile ownership in different demographics,” on the Klick Health blog. The publication grew from some research I did to support a mobile strategy for a pharmaceutical client. While the POV should be of interest to pharmaceutical brand managers, it should also be of interest to anyone working in digital marketing or curious about digital trends in general.

Some pharmaceutical brand managers are skeptical about mobile adoption amongst patients indicated for their treatments. Sometimes, this is quite justified (for example, research suggests that people with type 2 diabetes are far less likely to own mobile devices, including smartphones). Sometimes, it can reflect a general bias about older demographics—groups more likely to have conditions that require pharmaceutical intervention, but often thought to be less digitally survey.

Turns out that’s not entirely true. While older demographics were initially slower to adopt smartphones, they are now adopting them faster than younger demographics. And for tablets, older demographics are adopting them far more rapidly than younger demographics; tablets could soon have greater penetration in older demographics than younger.

Check out the POV and let me know what you think.



Responsive design from the trenches

(Cross-posted from the Klick Health blog.)

Talk about creating a new or mobile-optimized website these days, and you can’t avoid the topic of responsive design. But despite being a fairly established subject of conversation (see our post from a year ago), it’s still quite misunderstood—and even contentious. So I figured a quick dispatch from the trenches was in order.

But first, a recap. With responsive design, a single website can display differently across devices using a single codebase and rules that alter design and layout for different resolutions. For example (albeit a very simple one), these rules can specify that at a desktop resolution, supplementary information appears in a sidebar, while at a smartphone resolution it appears beneath primary information. This approach differs from creating a mobile-specific site in that you don’t need a separate codebase for each supported device type.

At a high level, it works as follows:

  • Wireframe and design interfaces for different devices/resolutions (usually common desktop, tablet and mobile resolutions)
  • Develop a single site with a single codebase to serve the appropriate layout and design for each device/resolution
  • Use rules (such as CSS media queries) to show the appropriate layout and design for the appropriate device

See for yourself

At this point, some examples would probably help. To see these examples in action, you can either (a) look at them in your browser (be sure it’s a modern browser, like the latest version of Internet Explorer, Chrome, Safari, Firefox, etc.) and resize the browser window from full-width to smaller width until you see the design change or (b) look at them on your desktop computer and then on an iPhone or Android handset. Take a look:

  • Klick’s website: Since you’re here, give it a shot!
  • Velcade RN ( This is a simple responsive site that Klick created for registered nurses.
  • Clear Air Challenge ( This is a more complex responsive site where the design has many “steps” and several layout changes.
  • Earth Hour ( This is another fairly complex example that incorporates video.
  • Fork CMS ( Another example that demonstrates multiple “steps” for different devices, meaning that it shows a different layout and design for multiple devices, not only desktop and mobile.

Unfortunately, there aren’t yet a lot of pharma examples, but they’re coming—and we’re working on some projects currently that will launch in 2013. We anticipate this to be a key trend over the coming year due to unprecedented growth in mobile device adoption and internet use.

That’s important because the requisite technology (e.g. CSS3) for responsive design is widely supported on mobile browsers. While browser capabilities on the desktop can change slowly, due to the persistency of older versions, most smartphone browsers are modern because (a) smartphones are new and don’t have to contend with the same legacy software issues; (b) the dominant platforms, such as iOS, come with updated browsers with each operating system upgrade; and (c) personal smartphones aren’t locked-down by IT departments.

Advantages and disadvantages

This said, we don’t always recommend responsive design, as it’s not always suitable for a project. When considering responsive design, here are some key pros and cons:


  • More cost-effective for the long-term due to maintenance of a single codebase rather than multiple codebases
  • Ensures content available for different devices is always up to date (no need to ensure multiple codebases are updated when changes are required)
  • Can reduce regulatory burden once responsive-design review process is established; it may not be necessary to review every page of different sites for different devices once your regulatory department understands how the design differs for each device, and that the available content will be the same (or where it will differ)
  • Better future-proofing; avoids the need to create specific sites for each new device/resolution (and with the ongoing mobile device wars, and new devices seemingly launching each month, this can be an important consideration)
  • Becoming a best practice and recommended approach (for example, Google explicitly recommends it for mobile search engine optimization)


  • Generally, not suitable for complex applications, games, or multimedia applications where some more advanced interactions are required; this may change, however, as HTML5 support strengthens
  • Generally, not suitable for a large existing website; converting it to responsive design can be more expensive than creating a mobile-specific site (although the long-term cost-savings may still recommend the responsive approach)

Five criteria for choosing responsive design

So is responsive right for your next project? Typically, we recommend the approach when the following criteria apply:

  • Project is starting from scratch and there is no need to re-code an existing website
  • Required mobile functionality is fairly traditional, not excessively complex and works well with common user interactions (taps, etc.)
  • Client’s internal regulatory group is open to or already accustomed to responsive design, and amenable to reviewing content for different resolutions in a more streamlined fashion that creates efficiencies
  • Will reduce the amount of future maintenance required (such as by reducing the number of codebases that must be maintained)

Do these criteria apply for your next project? Do you have experience with responsive design? Do you foresee any challenges implementing it for future digital marketing? Let us know in the comments.

Not directly measuring ROI? Time to update the plan

(Cross-posted from the Klick Health blog.)

Let’s be honest: digital marketing has long failed on its promise of accountability.

Sure, you can track the digital part well—impressions, clicks, time on site, conversions and such. But if you’re driving offline transactions, such as filled prescriptions, things get more complicated. Much ROI reporting for offline transactions is indirect, such as through time-based or geographical comparisons. Much less is direct, connecting actual transactions concretely to campaigns.

Recently, some colleagues and I got a deep dive demo of Crossix, which is becoming the pharma industry standard for such direct ROI reporting. This demo showed just how much the promise of digital marketing accountability is now being fulfilled—and how advertisers who fail to demand it will be disadvantaged.

Know what’s working (and what’s not)

In a nutshell, Crossix partners with pharmacies to track prescriptions. It then cross-references prescription data with campaign data to provide ROI* reports—and much, much more. All of this is done in a patented, privacy-protected, HIPAA-compliant way.

For example, imagine you ran display advertising, search engine marketing and lead generation campaigns driving visitors to a drug website. (Crossix can also track offline campaigns, but let’s stick to digital, since that’s our focus.) With your campaigns appropriately tagged, Crossix could report which channels, placements and even creative resulted in the most prescriptions.

Importantly, it could also report which reached the wrong audiences, to help you optimize targeting. For example, Crossix can report which placements reach people already prescribed your drug or unlikely to be take it because they usually take generics.

Beyond coupons and savings cards

Sure, coupons and savings cards have long helped connect advertising campaigns with transactions. (Marketers have done stuff like that since the early 1900s.) But only if people download or register, then redeem. Companies like Crossix can—by working with partners who have pools of audience data—connect transactions with ad impressions, whether or not they result in a download or registration and redemption.

It’s like knowing which customers looked at a billboard and then bought your product.

And while Crossix is certainly a leader, it’s not alone. For example, Facebook is working with Datalogix to track offline sales driven by Facebook ads, and one of Datalogix’s data sources is CVS. No doubt big ad players like Yahoo! and Google will follow suit.

The bottom line is, well, the bottom line. There are increasingly fewer excuses for not knowing exactly how well your digital marketing campaigns are performing.

* I acknowledge that this still wouldn’t be a complete ROI picture since it doesn’t capture all revenue and expenses, but it makes more comprehensive ROI calculations much more accurate.

Innovations: Can Treato make social listening safe (and useful) for pharma?

(Cross-posted from the Klick Health blog.)

The benefits of social media listening often don’t outweigh the risks. It can sometimes mean nothing more than word clouds that quantify brand mentions. What we really want is insight. Not just data.

Enter Treato. An Israeli startup that’s about a year old, it aggregates health-related social media conversations and analyzes them with natural language algorithms to reveal “the voice of the patient.” The result is comprehensive market insight that Treato says achieves 80% accuracy compared to other methodologies, but with much greater scale.

“Everyone tries to listen,” says Michal Tamir, Treato’s VP Marketing and Business Development. “We actually understand.”

Eavesdropping on a billion conversations

I came across Treato recently while reading about new digital health startups and accelerators. There’s been a recent surge of disruptive innovation in digital health, unleashed in part by adoption of mobile platforms and apps, as well by healthcare inefficiencies that beg for novel solutions. Intrigued, our analytics team contacted the company for a demo.

Visit Treato’s free public site and you can immediately grasp the potential. Search for a pharmaceutical brand and you get instant results showing how patients rate it relative to competitors, what they’re taking it for, and what side effects they’re experiencing. For more qualitative insights, you can also see anonymized patient quotes that Treato analyzed to generate your report.

Treato gleans all of this from unstructured data, having crawled and analyzed more than 1.1 billion posts from over 1,500 websites generated by more than 23,000,000 patients and covering more than 24,000 drugs and conditions.

This differs from sites like PatientsLikeMe that use a more structured approach. Whereas PatientsLikeMe is similar to a facilitated focus group, Treato is like eavesdropping on patients talking other over coffee. The former approach may yield answers to specific questions, but the latter reveals a level of openness and honesty that more structured methods might inhibit. It’s also far more scalable; no registration is needed for participation, and everything people say publicly online can be indexed.

Patient intelligence without adverse event reporting?

In addition to its free service, Treato offers a professional service called Treato Pharma that’s available to pharmaceutical companies and their marketing agencies. If the free version is akin to a heart rate monitor for your brand, the paid version is a tricorder.

After you configure Treato Pharma for your brand and its competitors, you can navigate through tabs covering “Patient Insights,” “Competitive Analysis,” “Drug Switching” and “Top Websites.” Here you can uncover what patients are saying about your product, what they’re saying about competitive products, what’s driving them to switch products, and which websites are most likely to host conversations about your product (which you can use to inform media campaigns). You also get a dashboard to present key insights from each area on a single page.

To understand just how powerful this can be, consider Treato Pharma’s ability to report product effectiveness by condition. If your product has multiple indications, Treato Pharma can show how patient sentiment differs for each.

Competitive reports are equally useful. In our demo, Tamir showed how Treato Pharma allows you to see what topics people discuss more or less with your product than with your competition. For example, if patients talk more about “weight gain” with a competitor’s product, that might trigger you to revise your market positioning or even prompt research that could support a new product claim.

Importantly, you can analyze how the patient conversation changes over time. This lets you gauge the effectiveness of marketing campaigns; by comparing patient awareness or sentiment before and after a campaign, you can understand its impact and ROI.

Powerful, yes. But what about implications for adverse event reporting? “That’s the number one question we get,” says Tamir. But Treato has a legal opinion, she says, that the aggregate and anonymized data they use doesn’t contain the patient-specific information required by the FDA for a reportable adverse event. Treato can also remove information as needed, she says, to address any regulatory concerns.

Next up: Tapping Facebook’s massive user base

While the current versions of Treato and Treato Pharma are impressive, improvements are already planned that should make them even more so. This includes the ability to export data (although not yet to Excel, to the disappointment of my colleagues in our analytics department), as well as expansion to indexing Facebook data. The latter reflects a trend, says Tamir, in which people are increasingly discussing health issues on Facebook.

Treato has also experimented with Twitter, but they claim it offered little value. “Ninety nine percent of brand mentions there are spam,” says Tamir. Also, she says, the 140-character limitation inhibits deep insight.

Overall, Treato Pharma seems like a powerful tool for pharma marketing, and one that I hope to test further in the next few months. But as with so much else in digital health, a good marketing product might not be enough to attract users. We’ll be watching closely to see how Treato goes down with regulatory and legal.

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