PharmExec Blog

Online Physician Communities: Know Your Network

Jacky Law

Jacky Law

Online physician communities are like sweet shops for brand managers.
Or are they? asks Jacky Law.

For as long as pharma has been around, it has been trying to engage with doctors. Recently, that has meant following them onto the web into a range of physician-only communities. These cater, at one end of the spectrum, for large general medical communities such as Sermo and Physician Connect in the US, DocCheck in Germany and uk in the UK. At the other is a long and growing tail representing smaller, often international, communities catering for specialist medical interests.

It is now three years since Pfizer famously partnered with Sermo to explore how it could use one of the first communities to build a strong (30,000+) US physician base. In that relatively short space of time, new networks with new business models have been vying with each other to entice doctors and pharma companies on board.

In the process, both parties are finding interesting ways to engage with each other while the networks build up their businesses. Len Starnes, Head of Digital Marketing and Sales, General Medicine, Bayer Schering Pharma, is convinced these networks will change marketing and estimates there are around 30 sites in the US and 30 in Europe, that started later and are now starting to catch up. “But it is in the Asia-Pacific where the statistics are most mind-boggling,” he continues. “China’s top site,, has 1.7 million members, Japan’s another 177,000.”

Some of these numbers should be approached with caution, however. In China and India, for example, doctors are rarely authenticated, making the figures rather less useful. Even where doctors really are doctors, it is one thing to sign up for a network, another to actually use it. Nevertheless, all the evidence suggests doctors are gravitating towards them in growing numbers.

The networks are doing everything they can to sign up doctors. That means, among other things, constantly improving the news and journal content, helping to keep conversations interesting and, often, offering money to take part in market research. If the doctor is with doctors., that money can take the form of surfing points for simply staying on site. Pharma companies, meanwhile, find themselves confronted with a number of digital universes all filled with doctors talking about difficult patients who could be taking their drug, disease areas that could be swung round to discuss their drug, and everything else that doctors talk about. It is hardly surprising that the first activity to take off, in the US at least, was strategic listening — literally eavesdropping in on what doctors do actually talk about.

Efficient eavesdropping

Strategic listening quickly led to active market research and a gradual deepening of appreciation of the advantages of the digital world. For example, no-one ever knows for sure how many doctors see an ad in some obscure medical journal. Online communities take that kind of metric for granted and routinely give page view numbers and time on page for any aspect of a promotional campaign. Moreover, their business heads are constantly grappling with the same questions and with the same intensity as a typical brand manager: how can this community in its daily activities make doctors see and take notice of a particular product?

The result is a fast-evolving landscape of physician-only networks, fuelled by greater chunks of pharma’s promotional spend and apparently being lapped up by doctors. “The danger,” says John Mangano of comScore, a company that measures activity on the web, is that “it is a slippery slope as to how sites are monetized. From the networks’ perspective, it is important to ensure the actions to provide access don’t drive the visitors away as the relationship can be jeopardized if it is too overtly commercial.”

This financial dynamic, along which doctors and pharma companies will eventually diverge, also provides the best pointers as to how the landscape may evolve. From the networks’ perspective there are already various degrees to which they welcome pharma involvement. Ozmosis in the US, for example, separates its community of physicians from its business activities, using insights from running the former to inform the latter. And the largest UK site,, allows no direct pharma access while at the same time encouraging companies to use its community as an ideal promotion platform.

The reason the sites give is their belief that doctors value trust above all else — that and the click-of-a-button ease with which they can move from one site to another. If pharma companies share this belief (that doctors want to be seen as more than just potential prescribers), and use such sites accordingly, then the commercial tone is turned down and their integrity preserved for longer.


Potentially important new insights are emerging all the time that suggest new ways of engaging doctors. One is how online dialogue is revealing a whole new kind of key opinion leader, not necessarily the consultants or academics pharma has traditionally engaged with. Rather, they are the doctors who are listened to and have the most followers. Finding these people and really engaging with them means using tactics designed for the digital age. That, in my book, probably means supporting sites that fiercely protect their communities and instead sell their insights into how doctors engage with each other and may like to engage with pharma.

Click here for the FirstWord report, Digital Doctors: Marketing to Online Networks.

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  1. Posted January 13, 2011 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    Couldn’t agree more about the possibilities of this space, particularly within the European market – but worth noting (as some research Blue Latitude conducted at the end of last year showed) that while the networks are doing all they can to attract HCPs, most could do a whole lot more to attract pharma involvement!”

  2. Arthur Williams, MD
    Posted March 9, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    My partner and I head two hospitalists groups in the Boston area, one acute care, the other a rehab hospital. For years our handoff communications went through paper mail or fax. We were very diligent about communication. Even so, specialist from acute care settings and primary care physicians in the community complained that our group was like a black box – that they were not getting good communication about the care we were providing. The hospital even setup a physician portal so that any on-staff doctor could log in remotely and access their patient’s information. But this “pull” model never caught on, as most doctors expect data to be “pushed” out to them.

    One of our new physicians suggested we look at Concentrica, , which is an online network for secure clinical communication. This is free to physicians to communicate with each other. The national directory of physicians meant that we could quickly send to any physician, without having to know their fax or email. Like an online email system, recipients can reply and forward messages, so now we could get immediate feedback from colleagues in other locations, and in important cases, have a real dialog about patient care. The “Group Discussions” feature allows the specialist in town, the hospitalist, and the PCP to all join in an online dialog about one patient.

    The application works well on our smartphones.

    When our group wanted to send documents on our behalf, we upgraded to the subscription version, which cost less than paying someone in our office to fax the documents. There is an audit trail so we can see who received their messages. One feature we really liked was that if the message was not accessed online it was faxed, so we knew our clinical work was getting there.

    For our group it made it easy to communicate with other physicians, to get our documents out, gave a way for others to respond, and was cost effective.

    Arthur Williams, MD

  3. Buck Thompson
    Posted April 4, 2011 at 5:41 am | Permalink

    One correction to your post. Osmosis in this context should actually be spelled Ozmosis (HCP social networking site).

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