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What are the reputational risks associated with clinical trial transparency in the public sphere?

Calls for transparency in the pharmaceutical industry have grown in recent years, focusing on issues including pricing, access to medicine and how companies report finances. While these calls for transparency have come from healthcare professionals, investors and regulatory bodies, the cause for clinical trial transparency has had a vocal leader in Ben Goldacre.

Ben Goldacre has written several books on “bad pharma” and co-heads the AllTrials campaign, based in the UK, pushing for “All Trials Registered, All Results Reported”. Recent pieces in The Washington Post and The Atlantic demonstrate that coverage of this issue has also made headway in the United States.

But while this issue may represent a reputational risk for pharmaceutical companies with HCPs, investors and regulatory bodies, what does the general public think? Could current and potential patients concerned about clinical trial transparency cause reputational damage to the pharma sector?

alva analysed over 1 million pieces of content across traditional and social media to find the answer. This content included traditional and social media coverage of Ben Goldacre and the AllTrials campaign along with social media content mentioning the top ten global pharmaceutical firms. The key findings were:

  1. Over the last three months, content generated or shared by the general public has increased by 63%, indicating an upward trend in public awareness of Goldacre and his cause for trial transparency.
  2. The general public really isn’t talking about the issue of transparency in relation to specific companies, though the recent rise in content related to Ben Goldacre and AllTrials indicates that its members are talking about clinical trial transparency in relation to the pharmaceutical industry as a whole.
  3. Though the issue of clinical trial transparency currently represents only a minor reputational risk in relation to the general public, it is possible that increasing public awareness combined with Goldacre’s determination to “name and shame” will bring more individual companies – and their record on trial transparency – into the spotlight of public discussion.

Has public visibility of Ben Goldacre and AllTrials increased in the last 3 months, and who is doing the talking?

Most coverage mentioning Ben Goldacre or AllTrials came from social media, with hashtag #AllTrials appearing in 58% of content. 26% of total content was generated or shared by the general public on social media. This does not include science or medical organisations or posts from any accounts directly linked to Ben Goldacre or the AllTrials movement.

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Over the last three months, content generated or shared by the general public has increased by 63%, indicating an upward trend in public awareness of Goldacre and his cause for trial transparency.

Are specific pharma companies at risk from clinical trial transparency, and what is the public saying?

Over a three-month period, the top ten pharma companies globally garnered a combined 146 pieces of social media content mentioning transparency from the general public, with only half of this content referencing clinical trial transparency specifically. This represents only 0.04% of all social media content related to these ten companies.

Individual pharma companies were most often referenced in relation to trial transparency when “test” results revealed those most or least compliant with transparency regulations. Other general public comments focused on transparency around pricing and side effects.

What is the risk to the pharmaceutical industry where this stakeholder is concerned?

The general public really isn’t talking about the issue of transparency in relation to specific companies, though the recent rise in content related to Ben Goldacre and AllTrials indicates that its members are talking about clinical trial transparency in relation to the pharmaceutical industry as a whole.

Based on trends in social media discussion over the last three months, alva has identified the following risks to the pharma sector where clinical trial transparency is concerned:

  1. AllTrials expansion in the US and beyond. Multiple tweets ask for AllTrials to “go global”, and recent articles in US news media signify that awareness of this issue is likely to grow
  2. Emotional campaigning linked to topics including veterinary care and prevention of patient harm. Members of the general public have shared posts using this emotional messaging to boost visibility among a patient audience
  3. Campaigns to “name and shame” universities not reporting clinical trial results as required. This poses a risk to individual pharmaceutical companies that are partnered with targeted institutions – and could augment criticism of individual firms

Though the issue of clinical trial transparency currently represents only a minor risk in relation to the general public, it is possible that increasing public awareness combined with Goldacre’s determination to “name and shame” will bring more individual companies – and their record on trial transparency – into the spotlight of public discussion.

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