By David Woods ([email protected])

Call them Sermoans, Sermophiles, or just plain members, the 32,000 physicians enrolled in Sermo could be changing the way that pharmaceutical companies interact with healthcare professionals.

Certainly Pfizer thinks so. Having laid off 20% of its US and European sales teams last year, it recently linked up with Sermo – an internet-based social networking site for doctors which was founded in September 2006. Pfizer will work with Sermo to establish how drugmakers can communicate with physicians online and provide drug and disease information to them, and Sermo’s members will have a forum for seeking diagnostic advice from their peers.

Sermo’s founder and CEO, Dr Daniel Palestrant, said in an interview with HOC: “The concept is a simple one. I talked to my colleagues about clinical events and then read about them in the mainstream press weeks later.” Palestrant, a surgeon turned entrepreneur, wondered how these kinds of discussions could be captured and made available to all physicians.

Sermo faced three challenges, he said: what would motivate physicians to share the observations and conversations they made with colleagues? What would the business model be? How could credibility and confidentiality be ensured? Initially, the concept was supported by financial services companies, and government and research entities, and Dr. Palestrant was reluctant at first to involve the pharmaceutical industry. But then Sermo’s physician members themselves asked to be connected with that industry because much relevant and useful therapeutic data emanates from it. “And so,” he says, “we looked for a company that would work on our community’s terms.”

At a time when the pharmaceutical industry is finding it increasingly difficult to gain access to physicians, not just because of regulations that preclude providing them with meals and gifts… but because physicians themselves are more and more pressed for time, the timing may be right for new initiatives. So-called detailing, says Palestrant, “can be effective; but it’s expensive and contentious.” Doctors’ relationships with pharma have worsened in recent times, he believes, but each needs the other, and engagement is preferable to a standoff. Sermo, he says, provides the technology to change the way they talk to each other.

The company expects that other pharmaceutical companies will soon follow Pfizer’s lead, and has plans to expand its service into Europe.