The use of LinkedIn and the ABPI Code of Practice

World networking showing how LinkedIn and the ABPI Code of Practice work together to connect professionals

Rina Newton, Managing Director of CompliMed, offers guidance on the use of LinkedIn and the ABPI Code of Practice.

The Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA) has received at least nine complaints to-date about the use of LinkedIn, indicating that its use, which is not specifically addressed in the ABPI Code of Practice (Code), may benefit from guidance on how to adhere to existing principles whilst also respecting the purpose of LinkedIn. This should help ensure the LinkedIn accounts and activities of pharmaceutical companies and pharmaceutical/agency employees, comply with the Code.

LinkedIn’s mission is to ‘connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful’. Fundamentally, the PMCPA has noted that LinkedIn is different to other social media platforms; it is ‘primarily, although not exclusively, associated with an individual’s professional heritage and current employment and interests’. However, in terms of the Code, the word ‘professional’ does not sufficiently differentiate LinkedIn from Twitter or Facebook. Therefore, the Code principles for social media are applied broadly.

“Whilst it is true to say that applying the existing principles of the Code to LinkedIn activity goes some way in preventing issues, there is a need for specific guidance on the appropriate use of this particular platform”

How the ABPI Code applies to LinkedIn

It is acceptable for pharmaceutical company and agency employees to use personal LinkedIn accounts, but their posts might be covered by the Code and the company held responsible for any breaches. The PMCPA has stated that this is decided on a ‘case by case basis taking into account all of the circumstances including the nature of the material disseminated, any product references, the company’s role if any in relation to the creation or availability of the material posted, whether such posting was directed, encouraged or otherwise acquiesced to by the company. The status and role of the employee might also be relevant.’

Therefore, it is a good starting point to consider broadly when the Code applies (eg promotion or disease awareness) and does not apply (eg recruitment).

 

When the ABPI Code applies to LinkedIn

UK company posts and articles about medicines and therapy areas always fall under the scope of the UK Code.

Non-UK company posts and articles will fall under the scope of the UK Code only if:

  • Global/International/EU companies, and therefore LinkedIn accounts, are based in the UK
  • The UK pharmaceutical company or agency employee shares/likes a non-UK post that relates to the commercial or professional interests of the company.

 

Non-pharmaceutical posts and articles will fall under the scope of the UK Code if:

  • The content relates to the commercial or professional interests of the company and the UK pharmaceutical company or agency employee shares/likes the post.

If a UK company is liable under the Code, the usual breaches are:

  • Promoting prescription-only medicines to the public
  • Not certifying non-promotional material for the public
  • Promoting to health professionals without obligatory information or certification
  • Promoting pre-licence medicines
  • Failing to tailor information to the audience
  • Failing to obtain permission to promote via ‘electronic’ means.

Furthermore, the absence of clear and unambiguous company guidance may result in breaching ‘high standards’, but the complete absence of a compliance infrastructure will likely breach Clause 2 (‘bringing discredit upon the whole industry’).

 

Understanding promotion under the ABPI Code

Whilst many of the LinkedIn cases relate to unacceptable promotion, the learning here has more to do with poor knowledge of what ‘promotion’ is, rather than how LinkedIn is used.

Recently, when asked about a UK employee sharing a US post about a company’s pipeline medicine, a senior director responded: “The data is all inthe public domain and has been communicated at an EU congress.”

This may be true, but the UK employee’s share of this US post brings the post under the scope of the Code, and disseminated material that promoted the medicine to their followers, some of whom would have been the public and health professionals, without proper UK approval.

A top line solution to this situation would be if the UK arm of the company had amended and approved this information before posting it on their own UK account for all their followers to read. This would then have allowed any UK employee to like/share the information. Alternatively, the use of closed groups provides an opportunity to communicate relevant and meaningful content with appropriate audiences.

Too much or too little

A less obvious risk to counter ‘too much social media’ is, of course, too little. A pharmaceutical company with little or no LinkedIn activity but with active employees, can sometimes lead to employees sharing inappropriate information.

For example, a senior NHS clinician was working in the pharmaceutical industry in his speciality field. In the absence of his company posting news, he considered it appropriate as a health professional to post news on LinkedIn about recent advances in his field. In failing to appreciate that his new ‘pharmaceutical employee’ status required complete adherence to the Code, he put his company at risk. A disclaimer about ‘mine and not my employer’s view’ would not suffice in this regard.

Had the UK company posted an approved post about the recent advances, not only could UK employees like or share this but, importantly, this would have allowed wide communication of scientific progress.

In these examples, the availability of clear company guidance could have provided some infrastructure.

Guidance on LinkedIn and the ABPI Code

In terms of other available advice, the British Medical Association and Royal Pharmaceutical Society both provide guidance to their members about social media, ethics and professionalism (in relation to patient confidentiality, content of communications and professional boundaries).

The PMCPA first issued guidance1 on ‘digital communications’ in April 2011 which is largely the same in 2019 and does not mention LinkedIn. The ABPI convened a meeting in January 2018 to discuss what might be needed in social media guidance, however, none has been provided yet.

Whilst it is true to say that applying the existing principles of the Code to LinkedIn activity goes some way in preventing issues, there is a need for specific guidance on the appropriate use of this particular platform.

Our suggestions for such guidance are:

What could be included in guidance on LinkedIn for the UK pharmaceutical industry?

  • Strategy
  • Recommended content for company policies and contracts with third parties
  • Recommended training scenarios for initial and ongoing awareness
  • Type of LinkedIn content to which the UK Code applies (profiles, posts, articles)
  • LinkedIn functionality (settings, likes, shares, groups)
  • Liability for comments (posts, articles, groups)
  • Approval of LinkedIn communications (certification, examination, final form)
  • Recall of LinkedIn communications (or reapproval)
  • Adverse event reporting
  • Use of closed groups (permission, link to prescribing information)
  • Oversight and monitoring.

 

Cases AUTH/2851/6/16, 2738/10/14, 2988/10/17, 3038/4/18, 3019/2/18, 3020/2/18, 3021/2/18 and two cases not yet in the public domain
Social media, ethics and professionalism guidance (BMA)
https://www.bma.org.uk/advice/employment/ethics/social-media-guidance-for-doctors
Social Media: Ethical and professional challenges (RPS)
https://www.rpharms.com/resources/toolkits/social-media-guidance/social-media-ethical-and-professional-challenges
PMCPA guidance on digital communications (March 2016)
http://www.pmcpa.org.uk/advice/digital%20communications/Pages/default.aspx

 

Dr Rina Newton is Managing Director of CompliMed.

Email info@complimed.co.uk