Sermo signs up Pfizer

Sermo now counts Pfizer among its clients
Sermo now counts Pfizer among its clients
Pfizer has signed on as the first pharmaceutical client of Sermo, the online community for physicians.

The 15-month deal gives Pfizer a peephole into Sermo's 31,000-strong community of doctors and a means of monitoring what they're saying about the company's products. Pfizer can also interact with the Sermo community through a technology called “Hotspots,” by which discreet tabs appear on topic threads notifying users of a “Learn or Earn” opportunity from a commercial interest. Upon clicking the tab, they are presented with icons indicating the nature of the offer – a dollar sign for an “Earn” opportunity, typically one in which docs are paid to answer a question, and a mortarboard-wearing scholar for a “Learn,” which could be CME -- and can click through if they wish to participate.

“Physicians are now exchanging information in a way that was never available before through technology,” Pfizer's Stuart Sowder, senior group leader, medical, told MM&M. “This puts us in touch with people who are having an open dialogue. To make good decisions, you have to have good information. We pride ourselves as a group that has a lot of good information, and for us not to engage that would be a loss.”

Sowder said the structured nature of Sermo's model for physician interaction with commercial interests made it a good place for the firm to jump into social media, a regulatory grey area whose blind spots have given pharmas the willies. He acknowledged concern about adverse events reporting requirements, but said Sermo's validation system and controlled, push-pull format minimized those qualms.

Pfizer may be buying itself a little insurance by bringing the FDA into the loop. In partnership with Sermo and the agency, the company will try to do for physician-pharma interaction online what it did for risk info in DTC print ads, redesigning the fair balance and warnings in collaboration with FDA to make them more accessible to lay audiences.

The move comes at a time when Pfizer is making deep cuts to its sales force. The company has downsized its army of reps by 2,200 – around 20% -- in the past year. Sowder said Pfizer doesn't see online physician dialogue replacing details. “We see it as complementary,” he said. “The sales force can provide information on the spot, but when the physician is not in a rush, going patient to patient, but taking time to ponder issues of importance to them, Sermo is a good way for them to engage in dialogue and hopefully come up with some new insights.”

The deal is not exclusive, and Sermo founder and CEO Daniel Palestrant expects that the site will soon sign up more pharma partners. Sermo, which inked a partnership with the American Medical Association earlier this year, has a stable of Wall Street clients, but had initially eschewed the possibility of pharma partners, viewing them as a “third rail” whose participation would alienate physicians. “And then the community was asking where the industry was,” said Palestrant. “Doctors were saying the drug industry often has the best, most topical information. They have all these resources and they don't have an easy way of transferring that to physicians. The question was how to respect the community and maintain our integrity while being able to monetize that.”