HEALTH2.0: Sermo, Pfizer: Big Pharma puts big toe in social networking waters

You can’t trust those Brits. I get a super exclusive on the Sermo-Pfizer deal and those damn Brits at the FT break the press embargo. So much for “honour” amongst journalists!

This is the latest version of Big Pharma’s experiment to figure out how to replace the incredibly inefficient way it researches, sells to and communicates with doctors. The very baby steps of starting to cut those detail forces are just starting to be taken, but while those empires slowly get dismantled over the coming decade(s), something needs to be put into its place. eDetailing via video has been a bust so far, and putting those hot cheerleaders into the doctor’s office is getting more and more expensive.

So the deal is that Pfizer (and of course soon other pharmas) will be able to put information into the social networking site. This has great opportunity and great peril for big Pharma. Of course there’s lots of information that they can contribute, and lots of contacts that they can make. But on the other hand, they are definitely losing control over the message.

Here’s what the press release (still embargoed but not, if you see what I mean) says:

Pfizer, working together with Sermo’s physician community and
other Sermo partners, plans to pursue a number of key objectives
through this collaboration, including:

  • Discover, with physicians, how best to transform the way medical
    information is exchanged in the fast-moving social media environment
  • Create an open and transparent discussion with physicians through the innovative channel offered by online exchange
  • Engage with the FDA to define guidelines for the use of social media in communications with healthcare professionals
  • Work with physicians to develop a productive exchange between pharmaceutical professionals and the Sermo community

In other words Pfizer doesn’t really know what to expect. Of course
there’s lots of great clinical information in the world of Pharma, much
of which doesn’t get out to doctors. So they might be helped by that.

On the other hand you don’t have to read much of what Marcia Angel
and John Abramson write to figure out that the way that information is
presented to doctors isn’t exactly unbiased much of the time. And that
bias converts into lots of branded product scripts being written when a
generic will do nicely instead.

Any information placed within Sermo (or any social networking site)
by Pfizer is by definition going to be validated and commented upon by
lots of physicians and also voted on in Sermo’s model. And included in
“lots of physicians” are many who don’t like pharma and are very
suspicious about it indeed. I am sure that Sermo has lots of these
doctors in its midst and I am equally sure that they would be delighted
to get their say on pharma’s message.

Now of course this is baby steps and no matter how big this or any
other deal it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the tens of billions
spent on detailing, CME, samples and trips to Hawaii. But it’s a start.

So if pharma really is prepared to take the plunge, the conversation
might just be about to get a whole lot more honest. Which I think will
be great for patients, great for doctors and great for society. I’m not
sure how great it may end up being for Pfizer and big Pharma. But it
seems that Sermo is now too big to ignore, and I’m sure that the
several other social networking sites for doctors are following right

But then again, the health care world is aghast with the news that Pfizer’s relatively new CEO is a Dimmycrat! Perhaps they should send him to Colorado, where they get rid of them in an unusual way!

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9 replies »

  1. Based on my experience at Physicians’ Online, then WebMD/Medscape, I don’t believe this will work. Not sure Pfizer is prepared for the following two truisms about Pharma and Physician “Communities”:
    – The docs don’t want them there.
    – The Pharma is not prepared to deal with the open nature of online community. If they can’t control the message (and they can’t (and if they try to, the docs will leave)), will they be able to “stick it out” in a truly open and free-wheeling environment?
    They may surprise me, but I haven’t seen it yet.
    – Steve

  2. In my mind, this development cuts straight to the heart of the debate over the sustainability of Sermo and other Health 2.0 based enterprises. Over the past few months, critics have argued that these companies are unlikely to survive over the long run, because they won’t be able to come up with ways to make money.
    This is the snarky old “So what’s your business model, dude?” question, rearing it’s ugly head again. The truth is, it isn’t that there aren’t ways to make money from these projects, its that the critics don’t like the business model. There’s a world of difference there.
    Sermo is offering a classic trade off. I (the hypothetical doctor) get access to a community of my peers that would not be available without Sermo’s infrastructure. In return, I give up information about myself and the conversations I am having with my fellow physicians.
    I’m not sure this is unreasonable, although I agree that this raises a number of potential problems that need to be worked out.
    If you have a problem with this model, what’s the alternative? If you think that social networks should not sell aggregated data about their customers — or offer doctors the chance to “opt-in” to communications from pharma companies, how can a community like this exist?
    Membership fees? An alliance with a larger company like WebMD or Revolution Health? A grant from the National Institutes of Health or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation?
    The interesting thing here is how the Sermo community reacts, as BevMD notes in her previous comments. The critics may well be right. It may be that doctors will not accept this idea. Sermo is obviously betting that enough will be willing to stick with them to make it work.

  3. I don’t understand why many of my peers feel comfortable talking to one another in a venue that sells access to their comments to Wall Street and Big Pharma. These “big brothers” are using the site to get a better sense of how to message the rest of us with a profit driven marketing scheme to increase drug sales. And the AMA is involved too… doesn’t anyone else feel nauseated? The only good thing is that Sermo is up front about what they’re doing, announcing it publicly.

  4. OK, so I return to my computer and find an email from Daniel Palestrant at 1:45 EDT alerting me to this collaboration, and referring to the first post from Pfizer. This must have occurred within the last 4 hours, and there are 23 comments back to Pfizer already. They are getting an earful. ‘Nuff said.

  5. “when will docs get over their knee-jerk antagonism to big Pharma?”
    I suppose when “Big Pharma” stops acting like it’s trying to sell soft drinks and gets back to the business of manufacturing effective, safe and properly priced products.
    There’s no room in medicine for hype.

  6. Most docs are hopelessly naive about the sophistication of Pharma marketing departments. I consulted for a Pharma CRM (customer relationship management) vendor whose data-mining and business-intelligence technologies could delineate physician prescription behavior down to a single sample! The Sermo deal will only help Pfizer better understand what docs are talking about/sharing and thus better target their marketing messages.
    Frankly, this is a good thing. Pharma companies generally have much more sophisticated resources than 99.99% of docs in the field. (MDs who do nothing but spend all day reading clinical abstracts, for a start.) The more they can target them with useful information the better (even if this does bias them towards Pharma’s products.) *Advertising information is still useful information.*
    Oh yeah, and why is it that if a doc prescribes a drug for off-label use (essentially an un-blinded, unscientific, un-clinical, clinical trial) that is ok but if a Pharma company does it they get fined/sent to jail?
    I am not a Pharma apologist (far from it, in fact) but when will docs get over their knee-jerk antagonism to big Pharma?

  7. I got referred to a method of getting CME credit for the research I do including my time on Sermo using directus.cme.edu. Now they cut a deal with a pharma just when I found out the best way to get CME. I hope this is still allowed after this deal. Has any one hear anything ?

  8. OK, so I got interested and just did read the comments on Sermo reacting to the announcement. They range from neutral to suspicious to downright negative. Here’s a few interesting ones – first, the thought that Pfizer is getting involved with Sermo to encourage off label use of its drugs, since reps are limited to encouraging only approved label use – second, some glee that previously unidentified M.D. employees of Sermo who are already members will now have to be identified as Sermo employees; who will they be??!!! – third, that Pfizer will use the information from the site to refine and improve their marketing techniques to doctors.
    All interesting thoughts, don’t you think?

  9. Well, I will read Sermo and see what transpires, but my initial thought is that Pfizer is just (with permission, for money) infiltrating enemy lines to spread disinformation. Sermo’s CEO needs to be careful of losing his audience in his zeal to monetize the site.

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