Do you always save space for your dessert when out for a special meal? But when the waiter brings round the menu and tells you about all the specials, do you find you just don’t have room because you couldn’t resist that more filling main course?

The US Medical Communications conference programme was just like a celebratory meal. You get excited before hand because you’re going to meet friends or colleagues that you haven’t seen for a while and you’ll get time to have amazingly stimulating discussions and make new friends.

The menu could mean anything – is the steak going to be tough and tasteless or tender, juicy and delicious? Are you going to feel gorged at the end that it all blends and you have to think hard to pick out those distinctive flavours?

A conference programme is just like that meal. The menu was so full that I had enough brain food to last for weeks. You may think that you know quite a bit about those topics but you put your trust in the programme committee to have picked out inspiring speakers and insightful thought leaders.

Well I’m going to bring you that sweet dessert first in the meal. Web 2.0. Just like the 2008 DIA EU conference in Ljubljana, all the website goodies were held until last and sadly half of the audience had already left to make their flight connections.

Andrew Smith, Registrat Inc gave us an overview of the possibilities to Web 2.0 for those people who weren’t familiar with the interactivity, analytics and multi-channels. The message loud and clear from many speakers was that

we must use all channels to connect with our customers, either push or pull communications.

Integration of these channels and messages is a must have, not an afterthought.

Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn, Skype and MSN. If you don’t know what these are and how to best exploit them for your needs and your customers, time to hit wiki, sign up and play. Not all of them will be relevant but at least you know! If most of your customers (healthcare professionals or patients) are more savvy than you, that’s a dangerous position to be in. There are opportunities for those with the vision to see the possibilities and skills to work cross functionally to execute the plans. Do you know if your company is already involved in these areas?

One issue is grabbing and retaining people’s attention. Andrew showed us examples of Web 2.0 in action. For example, patient symptom diaries are used widely in monitoring disease. A patient blog gives richer information and insight into their condition, treatment effects and all the challenges they face.

Andrew showed us that you may have a Baby Boomer body but Gen Y brain & behaviour. It was great to hear that a fellow speaker who remembers B&W TV also finds all the Web 2.0, online gaming and gadgets compulsive.

Daniel Palestrant, CEO & founder of Sermo gave a compelling presentation on their online US physicians community and how pharma can be a true partner. So what’s special about Sermo? Their website gives some idea but once Daniel explained it to us, the true potential isn’t so obvious.

If you are calm when everyone else is panicking, maybe you just don’t understand the gravity of the situation.

Sermo.com has 110,000 practicing physicians in 68 specialities signed up. It currently contains 3.5 million insights from the community. As the doctor’s life can be very lonely (too many patients, no time for conferences, little contact with many other physicians apart from the immediate circle), it’s an easy, rewarding way to interact with their peers. The demographics of active users are surprising. It’s not the Facebook/Twitter addicts that use it predominantly but older physicians (over 45) who are the busiest doctors seeing the most patients and prescribing the most. They can’t be reached by advertising or representatives but they hang out in Sermo.com.

So how does it work? A physician can post up a challenging case and then get immediate feedback from his peers on various options (including do nothing!). That community vote on what option they would choose so the physician can see the consensus and then make their own choice. There’s an opportunity to add more detailed comments and evidence. We saw an example of a patient brought into ER with a saw through his finger (plus photos). The physician got an immediate response from another ER physician with some practical advice about using a straw slit along the axis to slip between the flesh and the saw. As well as collaborating on cases, physicians can vote on new products and their place in treatment, educate each other and give drug advice peer-peer. All doctors are authenticated as they have to be licensed.

It works as physicians want to hang out online where their peers are, not using some discussion forum set up by a brand team from pharma. Where pharma comes into Sermo.com (along with government agencies, payors and healthcare providers) is as an observer. The gain for pharma is that we can gain insights into our product use, real experience and issues. Pfizer showed true vision by working with Sermo for the last 18 months. Eight other major companies have since joined.

The beauty of the website for medical information is a service called AskRx, which has been piloted for the last 8 months. As a win-win situation, physicians can post up a question that goes straight to the medical information professionals at our companies who then posts back an answer direct to the physician. The answer can be posted back to the community if the physician and the company both agree.

This project took only 3 months from conception to reality. 83% of the physicians who used the service thought it gave them a new valuable access point to the company. 75% thought the answer was scientific and credible (to me that seems a low %). The legal and regulatory challenges take a while to resolve within the company but in the end Pfizer decided to go with it.

It has implications for safety also. Emerging drug issues can be picked up very early and the situation quickly contained and monitored.

Sermo plans to come to Europe later this year. To return to our meal theme – I personally don’t really like desserts but this was a dessert that I just loved.