When pharma giant Novartis first started marketing Entresto, a heart failure drug, it found itself facing criticism from cardiologists and consumers who felt the company's direct-to-consumer ads were far too negative.

But following that criticism, Novartis has taken a much different approach to promoting Entresto.

It partnered with the American Heart Association and actress/singer Queen Latifah to be a part of their Rise Above Heart Failure initiative, which includes events, media outreach and digital content distributed on the American Heart Association's website.

And, last month, it supported a panel discussion broadcast through Facebook Live on World Heart Day that featured Queen Latifah and medical doctor Karol E. Watson, a professor of medicine/cardiology and the co-director of the UCLA Program in Preventive Cardiology.

Now, Novartis has launched a dedicated online social network for heart failure patients and caregivers. Together in HF, which debuted late last month, aims to connect those affected by heart failure, provide heart failure resources and offer content from medical experts.

The social network features dedicated sections for heart failure patients to share their stories and discuss how they live with heart failure. There is also a section for caregivers to interact with each other.

Novartis has a team of community managers who oversee the social network, and experts, such as Dr. Bob Hilkert, a cardiologist with Novartis, contribute content.

Facebook isn't always the social network

To launch Together in HF, Novartis teamed up with a number of organizations, including the American Association of Heart Failure Nurses, Association of Black Cardiologists, American College of Cardiology and WomenHeart. 

While companies frequently create communities on existing social platforms, like Facebook, because they come with built-in audiences that can be tapped, Novartis and its partners decided to launch their own social network. Two of the biggest reasons: privacy and control.

Registration on Together in HF is open only to individuals located in the United States, content is private and only available to other members. Healthcare practitioners are not permitted to sign up in their capacity as healthcare practitioners; they can register in the capacity of a patient or caregiver.

Novartis has established its own set of community guidelines and allows users to delete their accounts at any time, promising that "all [account] information will be removed from the server."

Ensuring privacy, establishing and enforcing its own set of policies and maintaining ownership and control of its data are obviously important to any pharma company operating an online community, and these would have been all but impossible to accomplish had Novartis not built its own social network.

While the cost of that is certainly higher – Together in HF was two years in the making – Novartis' effort demonstrates that there are use cases for which dedicated, self-hosted online communities are worthwhile investments, particularly in health and medicine.

After all, Entresto is expected to generate $200m per year in revenue for Novartis, so building out its own products to support the heart failure community clearly has the potential to deliver a return if those products are well-crafted.

More on healthcare:

Patricio Robles

Published 22 November, 2016 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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