A recently surfaced document from Sermo, a physician networking website, casts serious doubts on the company’s willingness or ability to protect identities of its physician members, MEDGADGET has learned. The document, designated as “Confidential,” and titled Utility of a market-based online physicians’ community to detect and clarify signals related to medical product safety, was likely presented to the FDA on March 7, 2007, in an effort to incorporate Sermo’s knowledge base into FDA’s Sentinel Network, a system, currently under construction, to monitor drug and device safety.
The document seems to show the workings of AlphaMD, the back entrance to Sermo that clients pay to get a peek into. Sermo’s business model is based on an interesting idea of having a forum for physicians and, at the same time, presenting a platform for interested parties to monitor the conversation. Here’s how Daniel Palestrant, MD, CEO of Sermo described their business model to Healthcare Vox in a November 14, 2006 interview:
In this model, the community generates “heat maps” around different subject areas or ideas. This is valuable information to our clients. We are able to sell this information, without compromising physician anonymity in way shape or form, while providing an environment that is free from outside influence and advertising. This business model is accepted by physicians and appears to be legitimizing Sermo in that information arbitrage is a real business model and physicians don’t fear a “bait and switch” looming in their future.
Moreover, there appears to be a “Physicians” tab on the top of the client page, leading us to wonder what information is provided under that tab. Sadly, the screen shot of that page is not presented in the document.
People familiar with the document speculated to MEDGADGET on possible reasons for Sermo to possibly reveal identities of its physicians, whether on purpose or not. Simple sloppiness on the part of developers, simplification of the accounts payable process, federal mandate to reveal identities of people reporting drug or device problems, and other reasons were cited. No one seems to have a satisfactory answer at this time. The big question still remains: Does Sermo protect the identities of its physicians?
MEDGADGET has not contacted Sermo regarding this, as we have had no response to our previous attempts to contact them. Once they address this important story, we’ll point a link to the Sermo’s position.
Testimony of Alex Frost, VP for Research Initiatives, Sermo Inc before FDA’s Sentinel Network Public Meeting (March 7, 2007)…
Utility of a market-based online physicians’ community to detect and clarify signals related to medical product safety document on FDA website…
Thanks to Edward , Andrew, and Judy.
UPDATE: Dr. Daniel Palestrant, CEO of Sermo, has thoughtfully addressed our concerns inside Sermo.com, and has posted screen shots of the company’s backend, AlphaMD:
Well, in one of those meetings, a slide stack that included the first version of a mock-up of what our client interface could look like was used. Those slides are now a matter of public record, easily downloadable from the FDA site (I have previously referenced them elsewhere within Sermo). However, one of the slides includes a conceptual client interface that shows physician names. The physician names are fictitious and the feature was never built (indeed, the slide is clearly labeled “not actual data”). Software development is an iterative process. Mock-ups are part of a process where we get feedback from both our clients and our physicians. Sermo has gone through several different iterations of our product and ultimately we create something that best meets the interest of all parties, while adhering to the strict policies that we have set forth with regards to protecting physician confidentiality.
Sermo has never shared confidential information. Our model has always been and will continue to be based on physicians deciding who gets to see what information. I have attached a screen shot of the level of detail that the client interface includes. While we have never planned to include physician names, and this was a mock-up with fictitious name, if it has created confusion or acted as an opportunity for others to cast dispersions on this community, I apologize. I take full responsibility for it being used out of context.
UPDATE: Sermo CEO Offers Answers…