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Week-in-review editorial: Pharma dips toe in online doctor community

The big news this week for e-business and the pharmaceutical industry was when US drug juggernaut Pfizer partnered with an online forum of US doctors

The big news this week for e-business and the pharmaceutical industry was when US drug juggernaut Pfizer partnered with an online forum of US doctors.

Pharma isn't known for its risk-taking and is often seen as holding web technology at arm's length over fears that confidential information could be seen by unauthorised people. Pfizer's tie up with Sermo, which hosts the forum of 30,000 doctors, has seemingly come out of nowhere.

While some US pharmaceutical companies are further ahead in the Web 2.0 game than those in the UK and the EU, Pfizer's move sets an industry precedent.

Sermo began hosting the doctor forum back in September 2006, which was originally touted as a banner-free space for communication between doctors on diseases, new treatments and regulatory changes outside the influence of the pharmaceutical industry.

Pfizer approached Sermo nine months ago to form a collaboration and since then both sides have been working together to make it work.

Members want Industry participation
Sermo's CEO Daniel Palestrant said in an interview with PMLive that online polls and focus groups involving Sermo members indicated that they wanted industry participation in a controlled fashion: ìFifty per cent of our members consistently welcomed Pfizer's inclusion to the forum, with nearly three-quarters wanting some kind of industry partnership. Pfizer will measure success in the partnership in terms of information sharing by its R&D doctors, who can offer the most up-to-date medical information to our members.î

Palestrant stressed that any postings made by Pfizer's medical staff would be clearly identified as a Pfizer forum user logging in securely from an office computer.

Secure access by members has been an issue in the past, says Palestrant, but adds: ìThese [access problems] are not unique to Sermo. Online media taps into a community experience and the correct identification of those members can be an issue. The relationship between Sermo and Pfizer is unique. In Pfizer, we found a partner respectful of our online community's ethos and receptive to the needs of our forum members.î

Palestrant revealed that both Sermo and Pfizer were developing technology which would allow the online community to share information in a measurable, transparent and secure way. He also praised Pfizer for its commitment to recognise the common ground existing between the Sermo community and the benefits its R&D staff information offerings would bring to the forum.

Security technology
"We are developing 'Hot-Spot' technology, which will allow the Pharma industry to interact with the Sermo community," revealed Palestrant. "Outside information, or the information contributed by Pfizer, can be contextually linked throughout the site and members will be able to give feedback in a transparent and regulated manner."

When asked if the forum would lose its independent standing, Palestrant said that the online forum and Pfizer shared a lot of common ground.

"It's a trade-off. We recognise that tens of thousands of doctors work in Pharma anyway, so allowing Pfizer's R&D staff to join the forum isn't that strange. We chose to partner with Pfizer because it was the only company willing to come up with the guidelines and standards necessary to keep the original ethos of the online forum intact," stated Palestrant.

"All partners in the forum realise that there has always been a contentious relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and doctors. The pharmaceutical industry needs doctors and doctors need the pharmaceutical industry. I believe the tie-up between Pfizer and Sermo will be cost-effective and lead to further collaborative relationships. It's a taste of things to come," concluded Palestrant.

Palestrant would not reveal any financial details of the collaboration, but the company's profits currently come from charging investment professionals, such as hedge fund managers, to view postings which could serve as tip-offs to market-moving medical trends.

30th September 2008

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