Oct 192007

A newish social networking site for US doctors, Sermo, has an unusual business model. The site is (unsurprisingly) free for doctors (and some 31,000 have apparently joined to date) and the owners have also promised to keep the site clear of advertising, because:

Sermo is extremely professional. It is free of advertising and pharmaceutical promotion

So how do they plan to make money? Their idea is based on

“information arbitrage”, the opportunity that arises when breaking medical insights intersect with the demand for actionable, market-changing events in healthcare

In other words, they want to charge pharmacos, financial institutions, healthcare companies and others to participate and listen in on the community:

Clients pay a subscription fee and in return can post questions to the Sermo community. If you vote on one of these postings, you may be financially rewarded for your astute observations.

Sermo made the news in a headline deal with Pfizer. The Wall Street Journal reported on 15 Oct:

Facing financial pressures as some of its best-selling products lose patent protection, Pfizer is looking for more-efficient ways to reach the doctors who prescribe its medicines. Under the arrangement, Pfizer-affiliated doctors will be able to talk candidly with the site’s 31,000 members, potentially giving the company insights into prescribing patterns and a way to show doctors data on its drugs.

As the WSJ notes, this looks like a risky strategy for both parties. It’s not obvious to me that doctors will prefer to “talk candidly” with Pfizer’s shills over having to endure advertising on the site, and given the attention the pharma industry has received for some of its more dubious marketing practices (such as ghost-writing) and what has been seen as its undue influence over the whole medical profession (including, let us not forget, medical publishing), the arrangements are likely to come under some scrutiny from regulators.

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