Social Network Use Spikes Among Docs

Jan 21, 2009

Want to know where doctors go when they aren’t helping patients or meeting with sales reps? It turns out that 60 percent of physicians are using—or are interested in using—online social networks, according to a study released on Tuesday by Manhattan Research.

This is the first year Manhattan Research has looked at the broad impact of social networking on physician behavior. According to Erika S. Fishman, director of research and client services, this year’s inclusion was due to the rise of two big online communities designed for physicians—Medscape Physician Connect and Sermo.

Although most of the data from the survey isn’t unexpected (users tend to be younger, female, primary care doctors, or smart phone owners), item of interest is that physicians that troll online forums prescribe an average of 24 more scrips each week than their unwired peers.

According to Fishman, this prescribing trend could be due to the almost “viral” nature of chat forums and bulletin boards. If one doctor talks about a positive reaction his or her patient had with a treatment option, other physicians could be more apt to prescribe it.

Pharma Outreach
Both physician-oriented social networks offer client-facing products that allow pharma companies to poll physicians and start discussions. All sponsored queries are labeled as such so that doctors can choose to participate in pharma discussions.

On Medscape, drug firms can even purchase sponsorships that allow them to target particular information based on physician practice type and age. According to the study, most physicians have no problem with the sponsors being on the sites, and have even come to expect it, Fishman said.

So does that mean that physicians would be willing to peruse pharma-branded social networks? Don’t count it.

“What makes Sermo and Physician Connect so successful is the idea that it is a private community where physicians are talking together without the obvious knowledge that pharma is there,” Fishman said. “Physicians aren’t going to be attracted to branded sites. Those would have a much lower success rate.”

Off Label and Online
The next question—which currently has no answer—is whether or not pharma companies can disseminate published journal articles to doctors about off-label drug uses through sites such as Sermo. Recently approved FDA regulation gives pharma the authority to distribute articles directly to physicians without federal authorization, and social network sites would be the easiest way to get the word out to many physicians at one time without relying on sales rep foot soldiers.

At press time, Sermo could not be reached to comment on whether any pharma companies had approached them to try such a marketing tactic.