Sermo Joins With Med Mags

May 07, 2008

Online, physician-only discussion forum Sermo has joined forces with a number of major journal publishers in an effort to get relevant content to doctors faster. Physicians can now directly link a discussion on Sermo to an article published by Nature Publishing Group, Advanstar Communications, or the American Medical Association, to name just a few. (Advanstar is the owner of Pharmaceutical Executive.) The program allows more than one discussion about a single topic, and source material is linked to the conversation thread to prevent spreading of misinformation.

Publishers involved in the program can direct their readers to participate in discussions about the articles on Sermo. In turn, the Web site reciprocates by giving publishers information about conversations involving their articles.

Need for Communication
Compared to traditional feedback methods, such as letters to the editor or comments, Sermo's program is located on a physicians-only message board with an extremely high participation rate. The Sermo platform also couples a doctor-generated quantitative survey with every topic of discussion.

Sermo does not charge a subscription fee or advertise on the site. Instead, it charges outside groups to gain access to information being generated by the 60,000 physicians in the community.

Sounds a bit invasive? Sure, but doctors don't seem to mind. Alex Frost, Sermo's vice president of research, told Pharm Exec that the company is transparent about its funding, and physicians are excited about transmitting information efficiently to outside groups.

For example, when FDA recently questioned physicians on Sermo about their knowledge of potentially toxic plasticizers in PVC medical devices, it generated more than 1,500 replies in just a few days.

"There is amazing information that can be gleamed just by looking at the physician-to-physician discussions. We also allow outside parties a very limited right to ask questions of the physician community," Frost said. "However, the vast majority of conversations are peer-to-peer."

Off Label, On Sermo
Through Sermo, physicians can access any journal article from participating publishers, including those covering off-label uses of drugs. While Sermo is not working expressly with FDA or pharma on the issue of changing regulations to allow pharma to circulate and promote journal articles to doctors, the company is paying close attention to pending legislation on the topic.

"If the regulations change in that regard, pharma companies could use the Sermo platform to promote some research articles related to off-label indications of drug product," Frost said. "What's most significant is that Sermo physicians are empowered to discuss those things, and rate and comment on articles. If they think it's significant, they can add to the conversation." Conversely, if they think the article is disingenuous, they can ignore or demote the information.

Sermo does not moderate, censor, or control discussions. Rather, physicians are empowered to moderate their own discussions. Frost said that the physicians have had open conversations about ghost written articles and disingenuous information.

"We put the judgment of the veracity and the significance of the information into the hands of many people," Frost said. "In doing so, it stands to be another safeguard. Although physicians are not all well-trained to interpret research articles, they are very sensitive to BS in promotional material because they've been living and breathing that from industry for a long time."

Physicians have responded positively to the idea of bringing pharma to the table on Sermo. "In this medium, [physicians] feel they can have an equal footing and an equal amount of say in an egalitarian manner, and interact with pharma companies more on their own terms than they have in the past," Frost said.