Today, the physician-only social network Sermo announced that it has inked a strategic partnership with Pfizer. According to the press release:
“[Sermo and Pfizer have launched a] strategic collaboration designed to redefine the way physicians in the U.S. and the healthcare industry work together to improve patient care. . . . Through this collaboration, Sermo’s community of physicians will have access to Pfizer’s clinical content in tangible ways that allow for the transparent and efficient exchange of knowledge. With access to the most comprehensive and up-to-date information on Pfizer products, physicians will be able to find the data they need, when they need it, to make informed decisions.”
“Product managers don't care about ‘transforming the way medical information is exchanged.’ They care about transforming the way scripts are written for their products. It's strictly ‘show me the money!’ with them. That's why only 3% of pharma marketing budgets is devoted to the Internet.”
Ed Silverman of Pharmalot is worried that the agreement could lead to illegal off-label marketing, saying:
“But the venue could, conceivably, create myriad scenarios in which, say, off-label info is conveyed or trial results are somehow whispered prematurely or selectively. The FDA, if it pays attention, will likely have its bureaucratic hands full keeping track of countless postings to ensure such agreements don’t devolve into one large, ongoing and inappropriate marketing machine.”
Silverman Has A Point, But . . .
Silverman makes some good points about the Sermo-Pfizer alliance. The potential for being cited for off-label promotion is a key worry of pharmaceutical marketers. This is one reason why drug firms have not yet fully embraced social media for communications purposes thus far.
However, despite these concerns, we must remember that Sermo has a lot to lose and little to gain if it allows Pfizer’s physicians and marketing department to use the social network in inappropriate ways. Sermo is only as good as its physician community. If it becomes apparent that Sermo has become nothing but a front for drug firms . . . bye bye Sermo.
In addition, unlike some recent “stealth” marketing efforts (i.e., inappropriate drug company employee Wikipedia edits), the Sermo-Pfizer partnership is completely transparent.
Finally, although off-label marketing is a concern, there are two ways for drug firms to remain safe:
1. Ensure that all postings and commentary are reviewed by internal compliance officers before publication
2. Refrain from participating in or encouraging off-label physician conversation
Pharmaceutical industry executives reading this article and curious about how to leverage social media while remaining in the spirit of FDA regulations should pick up this white paper I co-developed with Cymfony and Seyfarth Shaw.
Despite all of the conversation by outsiders, it remains to be seen how physicians using Sermo will react. Will they flee Sermo in droves or embrace this opportunity to engage in conversations with pharmaceutical companies directly? Only time will tell.