NEW YORK: Pharmaceutical and healthcare brands are lagging behind their customers on social media, and are therefore missing out on vital insights and growth opportunities, a report has argued.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, the business services firm, surveyed 124 industry executives. It found 80% of companies represented were active on social media, but the volume of relevant user activity on these sites was 24 times greater than that of corporations.

Separately, PwC polled 1,060 consumers regarding their habits on sites like Facebook and Twitter, and discovered 42% read health-related user reviews.

A further 32% accessed information concerning the experiences of friends and family in this area, while 29% sought out accounts from patients with a similar illness to their own, and 24% looked at videos and photos from current sufferers.

Elsewhere, 28% of the sample supported health-related causes on the net, 24% uploaded comments detailing their own health status, 16% posted reviews of medication and 15% mentioned health insurers.

More broadly, 43% of contributors agreed they would be likely to spread word of mouth regarding positive experiences with a brand of medication, as were 38% for sharing negative opinions.

These figures reached 37% and 25% respectively for the cost of health insurance and also stood at 36% and 34% in turn when discussing coverage from a health insurer.

If they were to request information from a healthcare company through social media, some 70% of the panel would expect a response within 24 hours, coming in at 66% after complaining about goods or services.

Another 68% of public interviewees thought drug and healthcare firms should offer discounts or coupons on social sites, falling to 66% for customer service, the same score as advice on finding medication at a low price.

However, only 42% of shoppers would trust the information added to social sites by health insurers, measured against 37% for drug manufacturers. These ratings hit 34% and 28% successively for sharing such material.

"The power of social media for health organizations is in listening and engaging with consumers on their terms," Kelly Barnes, PwC's US health industries leader, said. "Savvy adopters are viewing social media as a business strategy, not just a marketing tool."

Despite anxieties regarding the potential for negative buzz among web users, the analysis also revealed a modest 5% of comments relating to healthcare were unfavourable in tone, with 80% neutral and 15% positive.

Half of the executives polled were worried about how to integrate social media into their business strategy and expressed doubts linked to proving the return on investment, the study added.

Data sourced from PricewaterhouseCoopers; additional content by Warc staff