• The Gist: Are there ethical or privacy issues when medical people kiss and tell, for money, on the web?
By Dr. Rosemary E. McGeady, Esq.
The hottest craze among the doctor set is a new virtual discussion board and physician “playland” where you need to be an MD to get in the door.
This exclusive “Virtual Doctors Lounge” is the brainchild of surgeon Daniel Palestrant. Doctors post queries and comments in a plethora of different categories — more are added all the time — and receive essentially instantaneous feedback on their post by some percentage of the more than 22,000 U.S. physicians.
It’s like Disneyland for docs, except that Sermo is open and active 24/7, weekends, Christmas and Jewish holidays included.
How does this phenomenon, however intriguing, qualify as news? I will tell you.
It is controversial because physician input is monitored and actually responsible for some societal trends — Sermo predicted the downfall of Avandia, for example. It is completely anonymous so that doctors can say how they feel about things without risk to career, job and Big Pharma connections.
Yes, as of now, you need to be a physician licensed in the U.S. to play. Plans for an international Sermo network may be in the works, but Dr. Palestrant isn’t saying. His many patents would cover this possibility, as well as a similar network for paramedical professionals: nurses, EMTs, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, etc.
Doctors responding to postings can simply choose one of the answers supplied by the author, add their own answer or comment using their user name. On any one day there are many hundreds of log-ins, hundreds of votes and tens of new posts to answer.
Sermo is a privately owned and operated MD-only web-based destination for physician-physician anonymous interaction, but you can get paid for posting. This unique web phenomenon is funded by “clients,” often pharmaceutical firms who wish to ask particular queries of a large, informal internet-savvy physician group.
Doctors are also compensated small amounts for referring other physicians into the system, answering specialty-directed inquiries and for authoring posts that are given high marks by the Sermo community.
Doctors can post to their own specialty, and other specialties of interest, as well as multiple special interest categories such as “medical-legal,” “social” or “Sermo specific.” Postings to the medical-legal category have ranged from “civil liberties and real medical illness” to “the criminalization of medicine” to “defense attorney sued over ‘inhumane deposition questions.’”
There is no moderation — Sermo is an open forum. The developers and the participants of this community are intensely concerned with 1st Amendment rights of participants. Avoiding the “chilling effect” of censorship is a Sermo priority. Members cannot be expelled except for the most compelling of reasons. The Sermo management has opted to consider expulsion in the rare instance where the posted contributions fall into the accepted definition of obscenity — totally without redeeming social value using the local community standard. The local community standard here, however, is unique — a physician-only community spread with members all over the continental U.S., Alaska and Hawaii. •
Rosemary E. McGeady, Esq., MD, FACC, FCLM, practiced cardiology for 20 years and now practices law full time in Edison, N.J.; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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