Doctors-only networking sites take off

Websites for MDs offer clinical advice and friends. Soon in Canada

Sermo, an American social networking site exclusively for physicians, plans to allow Canadian doctors to join later this year
Illustration courtesy of Sermo

Dr Ann Mai, an Ottawa-born internist who now lives in Los Angeles, sits at her computer and goes online. She launches a favourite site, types in her user name and password. Soon a question from another physician pops up on her screen: 'Can patients use celecoxib in the days leading up to a surgery? The drug company says it's safe,' the doctor writes. Dr Mai, who's never met the other doctor in her life, clicks on his question and writes, "I don't use it. I don't want to use COX inhibitors — just being extra cautious." Meanwhile, another doctor reports he's seen a post-op GI bleed in a similar case.

This recent exchange took place on the physician social networking website Sermo.com, which in just a year and a half has amassed nearly 50,000 members.

Sermo is at the vanguard of a new generation of internet tools developed over the last few years that have got doctors to rethink the way they interact with one another.

This new breed of physician-targeted social networking website — which promise to help doctors collaborate and exchange advice about clinical issues, practice management and even vacation spots and hobbies — is still in its infancy. But the trend is picking up speed and later this year Canadian doctors will finally be admitted to the club.

Sermo (Latin for 'speech' or 'conversation') was founded by a Boston surgeon named Daniel Palestrant in 2006. It's since become immensely popular in the US. It's not only free to join, but it also pays up to $100 to docs who write particularly thoughtful or useful comments. Because Sermo verifies all members are doctors by asking for their Drug Enforcement Administration numbers, the conversations are candid and uncensored. Sermo doesn't feature any advertising; its revenues come from an "information arbitrage" system in which the company sells access to doctors' opinions to investors, including hedge funds and pharma companies.

The company has caught the eye of Canadian doctors, too; nearly 1,000 have requested to be admitted. A Sermo spokesperson told NRM the company plans to allow Canadian physicians to join later this year.

Professional networking websites operate on a simple theory: large groups of people are smarter than small ones. Got a question? Instead of hollering down the hospital hallway, type it into Sermo or another similar website and get advice from a pool of thousands of doctors.

One of those other websites is Arizona-based Tiromed.com (another Latin derivative, for 'novice'), which Dr Ann Mai helped start in 2006 as a social networking site for med students and residents to connect with physician mentors. It boasts about 2,500 users from at least 60 countries around the world. "If there are Canadian physicians who are interested in travelling to other countries or learning about training programs or licensing in other countries, this is the site for them," says co-founder and former med student Max Sanel.

Other websites, such as Relaxdoc.com (which, like Sermo, currently requires verification as a US doctor to join, and is also planning a Canadian expansion in 2008) and Doctors Hangout, focus on making friends and chatting about shared interests.

Dr Ron Lett, the president of the nonprofit Canadian Network for International Surgery, is one of Canada's early adopters of physician social networking. Dr Lett was introduced to the hugely popular social networking website Facebook when, returning from a humanitarian trip in Africa, he was surprised to find his email inbox overflowing. "I had all these requests to be friends with my children," he recalls, speaking by phone from Uganda, where he's currently working. "I didn't know quite what it was but I didn't want to turn down requests to be friends with my children."

Dr Lett got a Facebook account and immediately recognized the benefit that social networking could have for the Canadian Network for International Surgery's communications and public outreach activities. He oversaw the creation of the organization's 54-member Facebook group.

But social networking need not be used only for networking with colleagues. Dr Lett has two accounts — one personal and one professional. "For physicians, if you want to know what your kids are up to you, you should get online," says Dr Lett. "I once told my sister, 'Hey, did you know your son is engaged?' She got on Facebook quick."



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