Pfizer's unprecedented move to network with physicians online has been described as a 'watershed moment' for the pharmaceutical industry by the chief executive of the social networking site Pfizer has joined to.
The US drug giant announced this week it had agreed on a "strategic collaboration" with Sermo, an online social network, akin to Facebook, that represents some 30,000 US physicians.
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".
It is a move that has been described as risky - even Pfizer admitted it in an interview - but according to Sermo chief executive Daniel Palestrant and Pfizer executive director of global medical communications Stuart Sowder, the decision to social network with physicians online indicates the changing face of pharma and is likely to be the way of the future.
"This is a watershed moment," Palestrant told in-PharmaTechnologist.com.
"I think we'll see industry and physicians collaborating in ways they haven't in the past. I'm confident we'll see an acceleration in that."
Sowder, too, believed more pharmaceutical companies will get on board the online social networking bandwagon.
"I think it's one more avenue that has been taken on quite quickly where information is exchanged in real time on a need-to-know basis versus another model of getting into journals and getting information out through sales reps. I think that's a really nice aspect. Where it will go I don't know. I imagine we'll see more of it," he said when contacted.
In fact, Sermo is in discussion with a number of other pharmaceutical companies, at Pfizer's request, so that they too will be able to participate online.
But the relationship with Pfizer is exclusive in that the heavyweight will work with Sermo to develop guidelines on how online social networking between pharma and physicians should proceed. Meanwhile, advertising on the site is not permitted.
There are now more than 100 social networking sites available online, led by Facebook and MySpace, as the technology and the desire to network online has seen massive growth in the past few years.
Sermo was launched in September last year and was designed to bring US physicians together to discuss emerging trends and provide new insight into medications, devices and treatments, without the presence of pharmaceutical companies.
But Palestrant said physicians were starting to request input from the industry with the ability to work closer with pharma firms.
Given the relationship between pharma and physicians had become more contentious with time, Palestrant was not surprised that many physicians were still dubious about the new relationship with Pfizer.
"People are understandably sceptical about things until they see how things work . . . I would never have gone down this path if we had been doing banner ads and branding. I've taken a very cautious approach to this."
Sowder said some 20 per cent of the physicians on the site had voiced concerns with Pfizer's sales and marketing practice in relation to the collaboration, and Sowder was quick to defend the company's intentions saying the networking move was not a marketing ploy.
"We're hoping to change the perception of the prescribing community. We want to have people recognise us for medical professionals and the information we have," he said.
"I think it's a wise move for several reasons. It's helping us to engage with physicians in a way that's found to be helpful to keep them up to date in the scientific field and two it's wise because we feel we have a lot of really good information. To make good decisions you need all the relevant parties at the table."
The pressure will be on for Pfizer though considering the tough stance the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) takes on the relationship between pharma and physicians, and the FDA will be watching.
"Promotion of prescription drugs by or on behalf of the drug company is regulated by FDA to ensure that it is accurate and balanced. Companies are using new and different ways of promoting their drugs and need to realize that while these promotional vehicles may be different they are still subject to FDA regulation," the FDA, who earlier this year made an agreement with Sermo to monitor the safety of medical device products, told in-PharmaTechnologist.com.
But Sowder said the company was confident "we're making every attempt that everything that we do will conform with all regulations at all times and doing what is right for healthcare in general".