The following article is a virtual Master’s level course on the VERY dysfunctional relationship between the corporations that make drugs and the people who prescribe them. I am almost always an optimist but, in this case, it’s a matter of “read it and weep.”
A new Pfizer Inc. partnership with a doctors’ Web site could attract fresh attention to how drug companies interact with physicians.
The New York pharmaceuticals maker will announce a partnership today with Sermo Inc., a social-networking site for licensed physicians. 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.
It is risky territory for Pfizer, though. The drug industry’s interactions with doctors are highly scrutinized by regulators and lawmakers for signs that they are offering financial incentives to drive sales or promoting their drugs for unapproved uses. Pfizer plans to discuss the partnership with the Food and Drug Administration.
Many doctors, too, are wary of undue industry influence on their profession. “Often it’s looked badly upon by other physicians when you are perceived to have a close relationship with a drug company,” says Sermo member Richard Thrasher, an ear-nose-and-throat specialist from McKinney, Texas, who generally welcomes Pfizer to the site.
Sermo, founded in September 2006 in Cambridge, Mass., provides a forum for doctors to seek diagnostic advice from peers. The site earns money by letting clients such as hedge funds monitor doctors’ anonymous conversations and thus gain insight into, say, the popularity of certain treatments. Sermo rewards physicians whose input is highly ranked by other members and soon will offer to pay doctors for participating in its clients’ surveys.
Avery Johnson discusses how Pfizer plans to reach more physicians through a social networking site, instead of sending sales reps to doctors’ offices.
Pfizer has historically fielded the industry’s most aggressive sales force, but laid off 20% of its U.S. sales force last year and more than 20% of its European sales team in January.
Pfizer doctors, who will be clearly identified, will be able to ask questions of the Sermo community or respond to posts. If Pfizer doctors were to offer comments others deem biased, the system provides for quick rebuttals.
Sermo chief executive Daniel Palestrant says he initially didn’t want to involve drug companies, but changed his mind when physicians on the site started asking for the industry to communicate with them in a medium more convenient than sending sales people to their offices. “It takes a lot of courage for Pfizer to do this, because the response isn’t going to be universally positive,” Dr. Palestrant says. “Pharma is always in crisis, always under fire for something, and there have been trust issues with physicians.”
Michael Berelowitz, Pfizer’s senior vice president for global medical, says the company wants to communicate more openly, despite the risk. “We live in an environment where we’re closely monitored all the time and have constraints around what we say and how we say it,” he says. “Given that this kind of medium is the way forward…we have to learn how to behave in it.”
Neither company would disclose financial terms of the agreement.