Social media forums and the pharma industry

Andrew Tolve reports on how independent online forums can provide insights on what physicians and patients are thinking.



Andrew Tolve reports on how independent online forums can provide insights on what physicians and patients are thinking.

What if you could be a fly on the wall in a room of physicians discussing what really drives them crazy about diabetes drugs? Or about the exciting new ways theyre using antibiotics in antimicrobial therapy? Or about the specific criteria they need to prescribe a brand over a generic? How valuable would that unfiltered commentary be?

How physicians think and what patients think has always been a black box for the pharmaceutical industry because its been so difficult and expensive to orchestrate, says Daniel Palestrant, founder and CEO of Sermo, an online forum for physicians to share medical insights. And now theres an extremely cost-effective way to learn what theyre thinking and what theyre saying.

Social media channels

Social media is a fraught issue for the pharmaceutical industry. While many pharmas would like to increase their connectivity with patients and physicians, fears remain about opening up a branded message to the whims of online chatter.

Additionally, the FDA has been slow to provide guidelines for how pharmas should wade into Web 2.0. Recognizing this, Sermo has taken a unique approach. Rather than set up social media channels for individual pharmaceuticals, theyve established an independent forum for physicians, which, in turn, individual pharmaceuticals and other healthcare clients can observe and interact with.

Essentially we have a genie in a bottle, says Palestrant, because physicians want to interact and clients want to hear what theyre saying. Having a clean environment that enables this interaction gives us a tremendous asset to leverage. And thats what weve invested in.

Getting feedback

Presently 110,000 physicians partake in Sermos online forum. The average age of these physicians is 47. They practice in all 50 US states, represent 68 specialties, and collectively spend 35,000 hours a month within Sermos online space, where they chat about their day-to-day lives, forge friendships, search for innovative solutions, question shortcomings, vent frustrations, air ideas, and discuss all the other myriad topics you would expect a roomful of physicians to discuss.

Sermo clients can benefit from this discussion in a number of ways. First, they can observe the forum. One of Sermos products, the Dashboard, allows clients to log on and in real time see anonymous activity in the community. Clients using the Dashboard can set up key words that trigger hits whenever one of the 110,000 physicians mentions that word.

For instance, if a pharmaceutical wants to gauge physician perception of a drug, it can set up a watch list and watch physician reaction unfold in real time.

Sermo research reports are another way for clients to observe the forum. Every week or so, the company comes out with a report that summarizes a discussion on the forum, whether it be about a specific drug, a disease, or a more general line of interest.

For instance, a recent report summarized what US neurologists perceived the impact of oral cladribine to be, how they might incorporate it into MS treatment, and what the significance of the FDA refuse to file letter was.

Another recent report analyzed 12 months of Sermo physician conversation about diabetes to examine which diabetes issues are discussed most frequently and how physicians feel about them.

Interactive approaches

Finally, clients can take a more interactive approach with the Sermo community and post questions, send out surveys, or set up panels with the physicians.

This is where social media is so interesting, says Palestrant. This is a feedback medium, so we can get physician feedback at a tenth of the price it would otherwise be for clients. In a matter of clicks you can invite physicians into a panel discussion and very effectively have that discussion at a fraction of the price that it would cost to fly them all out to Dallas Forth Worth and poll them there.

Whats more, Palestrant continues, industry observers tell us that the type of feedback they get in this environment is so different than what they get out of focus groups. Its different in the sense that it can be quite painful but its often much more accurate. When physicians and patients attend focus groups, theres this natural sense to please the interviewer, whereas you get a much more direct and untarnished view through this lens.

Healthcare and social media

Sermo is not the only company operating in the healthcare social media space. MedscapeWebMD, and iMedExchange are active on the physician side, and PatientsLikeMe is a popular site for patient healthcare communities.

The cost of developing new therapeutics has become so high and the cost of selling and marketing therapeutics has become so high, and meanwhile the standard by which people are being held to has become high and higher, its really forcing an industry that has been very conservative and reticent to change and innovation to start to change the way they do things, to become more porous and more engaged with physicians and patients, says Palestrant. Thats why were seeing the industry adopt this media.

Palestrant says that despite the industrys enthusiastic embrace, business in the social media space still comes with its challenges: I think people make a mistake and see this as a technology shift. Its a cultural shift. The software part is the easy part to give to a client. The cultural part is more difficult, that a message is going to be owned by the community as much as by them.


Since you're here...
... and value our content, you should sign-up to our newsletter. Sign up here