A recent dust up between the American Medical Association and the physician network Sermo has provided online medical networks with something they haven’t found themselves: purpose.
Scattered from Cleveland and Seattle to Virginia and Massachusetts are companies still trying to prove out a winning model to gather physicians in a Facebook — or is it a LinkedIn, or is it a Ning? — type of environment reserved solely for the medical community.
The perceived reward is worth the pursuit, though. The leaders of these medical social networks say that their sites, if done right, are the new place pharmaceutical companies can come (and spend their marketing dollars) to connect with doctors now that ethics policies and gift bans are keeping drug representatives away.
But a central problem remains largely unsolved: what is compelling enough to convince a significant number of time-crunched and inward-looking physicians to seriously embrace an online network?
“Think about how difficult it is to reach out and touch a doctor,” said Joel Selzer, the co-founder and chief executive officer at Ozmosis. “The money that’s being spent to reach out and engage physicians: it’s billion with a B. And that’s just pharma.”
Sermo, based in Cambridge, Mass., has the lead and the industry’s attention — particularly after making a public break earlier this month from the AMA. The AMA has said their members weren’t getting value in the partnership. Sermo has said the AMA no longer represents most doctors.
Since the split Sermo has published the results of a series of unscientific polls of Sermo members showing they clash with the AMA on issues including health-care reform.
“Sermo’s goal has never been to supplant the AMA,” said Dr. Daniel Palestrant, Sermo’s chief executive officer. “Our interest was our constituency.”
Palestrant said online networks like Sermo help drive a new kind of “radical transparency” that delivers a voice and a vote to each member. But that’s not just in the political arena. Palestrant points out that while health-care reform and the clash with the AMA have brought new attention to Sermo, physicians there largely discuss clinical topics — and that has been good enough for his membership.
“Medicine is an intrinsically social pursuit,” Palestrant said. “Doctors do a better job with patients if they can speak with one another.”
Sermo’s 100,000 members put it at or near the top in terms of memberships (alongside WebMD’s Medscape Physician Connect). Sermo makes money by allowing third parties — pharmaceutical companies, government agencies and the like — observe what its members discuss.
But — when thinking about membership numbers — consider that the AMA’s membership is about 200,000, and that Sermo will not say how many of its members are “active:” meaning they check their accounts at least once a month.
Sermo’s numbers make it interesting, but competitors (no surprise) dispute its formula. Sermo confirms whether a registered user is actually a physician, for example, but members also exist anonymously on its site.
Meanwhile Ozmosis, which started as an invitation only community, verifies and then identifies its physicians by name, which Selzer says allows for a more credible discussion that’s valuable for doctors.
Ozmosis plans to expand its membership in the next 12 months. It includes discussions and its own application to bookmark and discuss items found online. It recently made deals to add features including real-time health alerts and global disease surveillance, and intensified its focus on medical residents.
“In our view many of us forget that physicians are not a monolithic group,” Selzer said. The winning medical network will be able to manage multiple, competing interests of physicians, he said.
Within3 logoSome have gone a different direction. Cleveland’s Within3 about two years ago abandoned these Facebook-like approaches as untenable. Instead it built a business around creating and maintaining online networks based on certain topics. The company will soon unveil a new Web site and marketing strategy promoting its approach.
This week, for example, Within3 announced it created an online network for the faculty, residents, fellows and alumni of Children’s Hospital Boston. In June it announced an online network for a study of head and neck cancer for the National Comprehensive Cancer Network. As a member of Within3, physicians can jump into any of these individual networks they’re interested in or allowed into.
Within3 Chief Executive Officer Lance Hill said the company is also building networks for drug companies where physicians could discuss issues around treatments and medications. The company makes money building and maintaining these networks it makes for organizations.
iMedExchange, the Seattle-based network, has a unique approach of its own. Its network will include a way to connect through multiple platforms including smart phones. It has also recruited organizations to provide information directly through their network (like its blog VitalSigns).
As the company unveils new applications, widgets and new platforms, it hopes to create an environment where a physician could sign on, ask a question and then receive answers through a phone or another platform.
“Our goal is to have physicians interacting seven days a week 24 hours a day,” Chief Executive Tobin Arthur said.
Arthur said features like messages boards and online polls, the promise of validating each member as a physician and focusing solely on the clinical aspects of a physician’s life aren’t good enough. In fact, they are a basic expectation for any medically oriented social network.
Many of the new applications in iMedExchange will focus on areas of business and finance, and allow physicians to customize the experience.
Palestrant points out none of the new models have been able to find the traction Sermo has. “I think it’s interesting perhaps what Within3 is doing,” he said. “This is their second re-invention. I hope this one will stick. Sermo has had the very same brand, same model and same message.”
Hill said they’ve learned what works. “For us, it’s a simple recognition that professional networking or social networking is nowhere near valuable enough to make difference to most health professionals,” Hill said. “The huge difference is that what we do embraces organizations and institutions in health care. We’re not trying to create applications or new networks and new work flows.”
By Chris Seper
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