Earlier this year Sermo, Inc introduced an innovative Website, sermo.com, that taps into the collective wisdom of physicians to identify trends in medicine before they become widely known. The company was formed to provide financial institutions, healthcare companies and government agencies with information that will help them:
- Identify potential issues or uses for medical products and therapies
- Get early insight and information about disease outbreaks, drug side effects and other issues that may impact public health
- Perform on-demand surveys of physicians on various medical issues
Since its launch, many physicians have signed up with the service and it recently received $3 million in venture capital funding. Physicians are incentivized to participate because they can get answers to their medical questions from other doctors and are paid for information they provide. (Physicians receive money for their observations if Sermo's clients view them as valuable. Click here for more on this process.)
Sermo Attracts Controversy
Sermo.com has also attracted a bit of controversy. Last week, the Boston Globe reported that Sermo "prominently featur[ed] postings from several doctors saying that Pfizer Inc.'s cholesterol-fighter Lipitor induces vivid and repeated nightmares in some patients as well as a posting by one doctor that said the diabetes drug Byetta, marketed jointly by Amylin Pharmaceuticals and Eli Lilly and Co., was associated with `'sudden death' in 50 patients."
Pfizer has reacted strongly to these reports, saying that no clinical trials or studies have identified this potential Lipitor side effect. Dr. Gregg Larson said that the Sermo.com reports are not "scientifically . . . [and] clinically based."
The founder of Sermo says his site provides a valuable resource to physicians and the public because it "serve[s] as an early-warning system about potentially dangerous drug reactions . . . [and] a forum for doctors to share information about off-label drug use" Sermo.com: Why It Illustrates The Best Of The Wisdom Of Crowds
Sermo, Inc's service is valuable because it provides physicians with a forum where they can talk shop with other doctors. Physicians often crave this kind of interaction, partly because there is so much variation in practice patterns between states, regions and countries.
In addition, by encouraging healthcare-related "crowdsourcing" financial companies and other organizations gain improved access to otherwise hard-to-find information.
Sermo.com: Why It Illustrates The Worst Of The Wisdom Of Crowds
As is with the case with any social networking activity, accuracy is of paramount concern. There is a significant possibility that inaccurate information can be highlighted and passed along by people, resulting in a giant game of "telephone" that has the potential to be very harmful.
One has to wonder if the Lipitor side effect reported by physicians on the site is based in reality. Sermo says that it conducted a study of site users and found that 33% of 750 doctors responding to its survey reported that patients were experiencing nightmares. However, there is no way to tell if the side effects were observed by the overall population of physicians. In addition, Lipitor is one of the most well-studied drugs in the world. It is suprising that no one reported this side effect during Lipitor's pre- and post-approval clinical trials. However, one benefit of the report is that people are now trying to get more information about this potential Lipitor adverse event.
Why Social Media Is Hazardous; The Communications Perspective
The Sermo incident illustrates why social media and networking technologies pose a hazard for pharmaceutical companies. A big question they have about blogs, wikis, bulletin boards and other social media is: what do we do if someone reports a side effect? Well, based on this incident it is clear that some companies would (among other things):
1. Review the clinical data to see if the side effect was reported previously
2. Look at data from their own sources (call-in lines, etc.) to see if physicians or patients talked about this adverse event before
3. Report the side effect to the FDA.
Of course, some companies may not want to devote the necessary financial and human resources to side effect reporting efforts.
Social media also poses communications problems. For example, how does a pharmaceutical company respond to a report of an adverse event highlighted on a social networking site? Given the negative public perception of the industry people may believe that the firm is hiding something if it denies that the side effect report has any basis in reality.
Clearly, social media is helping to change how people interact with healthcare organizations and highlighting important information. However, like any new technology, it has positive and negative aspects.
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