Pfizer gets chatty with docs online

By Katrina Megget

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Pfizer, Pharmacology, Medicine

Pfizer has gone where no pharmaceutical company has gone before - a
social networking website.

The US drug giant has joined up to Sermo, an online social network, akin to Facebook, representing 30,000 US physicians. Described as a "strategic collaboration"​, in a statement released by the companies, the move would see Pfizer having exclusive access to a community of physicians, while the physicians would have access to Pfizer's clinical content and up-to-date information on Pfizer products. According to Pfizer, the move is "designed to redefine the way physicians in the US and the healthcare industry work together to improve patient care." "This collaboration reflects Pfizer's commitment to engaging in peer-to-peer medical dialogue with physicians to better meet our mutual goal of delivering the best care to patients,"​ Pfizer senior vice president of global medical and New York site head of worldwide development Michael Berelowitz said in a statement. "Sermo's state-of-the-art technology has the potential to greatly improve our ability to provide physicians with timely and accurate information they want about our medicines and clinical data." ​ Launched in September last year, Sermo was designed to bring US physicians together to discuss emerging trends and provide new insights into medications, devices and treatments, without the presence of pharmaceutical companies. However, since then, Sermo chief executive Daniel Palestrant said physicians had requested ways to work closer with the industry. Pfizer is the first big pharma to join up to the site, which boasts it is growing by 2000 physicians every week, but may not be the last, with discussions understood to be underway with several other companies. The move could represent a big change for pharmaceutical companies as they look to embrace the technological advances of online social networking. But it is not without risk as regulators keep a close eye on the relationship between the pharma companies and physicians, while the move could also fuel the fire and give potential power to people to attack the companies. According to a Wall Street Journal report, Palestrant said: "It takes a lot of courage for Pfizer to do this, because the response isn't going to be universally positive . . . Pharma is always in crisis, always under fire for something, and there have been trust issues with physicians."​ Pfizer is already under pressure to change the way it does business, and in recent times has been forced to battle patent expiries, scale back production on lack lustre drugs and face fierce market competition and rumours of mergers. The company's hotly touted cholesterol drug torcetrapib was forced to be scrapped late last year after late-stage failures, and the company's inhaled insulin Exubera has been underperforming. Earlier this year, Pfizer instigated several cost-cutting strategies including reducing its staff by almost 10,000 - 10 per cent of its global workforce - in a bid to save $1bn by the end of 2008. Meanwhile, it plans to reduce its number of manufacturing sites from 93 to 48 by the end of next year including the closure of five R & D sites and the relocation of projects amongst remaining facilities and external sites. And last week, Pfizer failed to make the top 20 of journal Science​'s annual survey of the best companies to work for in the biotech, biopharma, pharmaceutical and related industries. In the mean time, Pfizer has made a concerted move into biologics with the aim to have 20 per cent of its pipeline product portfolio in the sector by 2009 and was recently named the largest individual spender (€5.76bn) in R&D. According to Pfizer spokesman Huw Gilbert, the networking move is "a symbol of the way Pfizer is changing". ​ He told the collaboration would open dialogue with physicians, provide transparency and overcome preconceptions of the company. Pfizer plans to pursue a number of key objectives through the collaboration including: discover, with physicians, how best to transform the way medical information is exchanged in the fast moving social media environment; create an open and transparent discussion with physicians through the innovative channel offered by online exchange; engage with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to define guidelines for the use of social media in communication with healthcare professionals; and work with physicians to develop a productive exchange between pharmaceutical professionals and the Sermo community.

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