Peter Kirk: “Perhaps frightened is not the right word”

Heroes are people who work day-in and day-out to help save lives and make the world a better place without asking for recognition. The daily hard work — no matter how seemingly small the actions are — and compassion are what make up the true heroes of the world. Healthcare providers are the perfect example of this, and I […]

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Heroes are people who work day-in and day-out to help save lives and make the world a better place without asking for recognition. The daily hard work — no matter how seemingly small the actions are — and compassion are what make up the true heroes of the world. Healthcare providers are the perfect example of this, and I think we can all see this very clearly during this time. Providers around the world are risking their lives and even their family’s health and wellbeing at times to fight this pandemic and we are all extremely grateful for their dedication.

As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Peter Kirk. Peter started his mission to build a cutting-edge healthcare research company in 2000 with a team of just five employees. Powered by innovative technology and a customer-first approach, the business quickly evolved to become a global data collection powerhouse and the most trusted social platform for doctors with over 300 employees in nine offices and a worldwide network of over one million healthcare professionals.

Under Peter’s leadership, the physician social platform Sermo was acquired in 2012 to transform physician engagement and healthcare data collection and democratize insights to help move medicine forward. Sermo leverages its capabilities to help amplify the voice of physicians globally by publishing results that help the healthcare industry at-large and create a single source of information. Peter holds a Masters in Finance from London Business School.

Sermo is amplifying the voice of frontline physicians through the Real-Time COVID-19 Barometer Study, a single source feed of real-time physician insights and perspectives on the pandemic that helps educate the healthcare community, patients, and policymakers alike.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

I’m a Danish Viking who grew up on the outskirts of Copenhagen, Denmark. Growing up in today’s Scandinavia means you are infused with a sense of fairness, a can-do attitude (the Viking legacy), and a global mindset given how small we are in the world. This translates into socialized medicine for all and also doing what’s right/fair first, resulting in some of the happiest people on earth ☺

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I don’t read that much as I’m dyslexic. In school I was always more fascinated by math and finance books, so guess you could say I’m a bit of a numbers nerd.

If I were to call out one book it would be The Hard Thing About The Hard Things by Ben Horowitz, as it does a great job describing very real dilemmas of a CEO or senior executive in companies where everything isn’t just a straight ride upwards. I can tell you that while it sounds fancy being the CEO of a social platform for doctors, it hasn’t been easy. It’s tough simultaneously advancing Sermo’s mission and brand promise while also running a commercial business successfully behind it.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Everything has a point of gravity. This happens to be absolutely true in the physical world. Applied to a company, the lesson is that every person, office, phone, server, contract, process, and even culture has gravity within the company and limits the amount of change you can effortlessly drive (as you otherwise would be able to in a world without gravity). Therefore, I try to minimize our gravity as a company where possible unless it’s unquestionably a force of good for the company and our future. For example, if you have a superstar that totally gets where the company needs to be going you would want to expand that person’s gravity within the company as he or she will move more of the company in the same direction via their gravitational pull. On the other hand, I would always try to minimize the amount of physical hardware like servers or long-term contracts that make it difficult to break away from.

I have more principles but guess one is enough here ☺

Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

Kirk: Named after the Latin word for conversation, Sermo was built by physicians, for physicians to connect the global medical community. Our 800,000 physician members across 150 countries come to Sermo to talk openly and honestly with their peers and work together on difficult patient cases in a modern, secure, and unique environment. Physicians also participate in market research initiatives through the platform, allowing us to provide key medical insights to industry, patients, and the general public to advance healthcare.

Launching the Real-Time COVID-19 Barometer Study at the start of the pandemic was mission-critical for Sermo given our goals to amplify the voice of physicians globally, democratize medical knowledge, and leverage a tech-first approach to data collection. To date, we’ve conducted over 58,000 physician interviews across 31 countries. Data covers a broad range of topics including treatments being used and their efficacy and safety, ethical questions related to wartime triaging and medical shortages, patient types experiencing the most complications, hospital preparedness, peak timing, testing, social distancing, mask-wearing, and much more. Developments are tracked on a weekly basis and all findings are available to the public through our interactive platform.

From an industry perspective, we also partnered with stakeholders across healthcare to develop our ongoing HCP Sentiment Series — these studies specifically explore how COVID-19 has impacted physician practices, and work to uncover the ways we can best support healthcare professionals during these changing times. Participating physicians donate their time to provide insights into how they are treating patients, what digital tools they are using, opinions on how companies can engage in this new world, and resources needed to do their jobs. The series highlights the emergence of telemedicine, which is becoming a highly discussed technology, fulfilling its great potential in the healthcare industry as we look towards the post-COVID-19 world.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

Heroes are people who work day-in and day-out to help save lives and make the world a better place without asking for recognition. The daily hard work — no matter how seemingly small the actions are — and compassion are what make up the true heroes of the world. Healthcare providers are the perfect example of this, and I think we can all see this very clearly during this time. Providers around the world are risking their lives and even their family’s health and wellbeing at times to fight this pandemic and we are all extremely grateful for their dedication.

In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Selflessness
  2. Courage
  3. Understanding right/fair from wrong/injustice
  4. Tenacity
  5. Strength

If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?

Heroic action is fueled by integrity, compassion, and altruism. When faced with an insurmountable challenge — like many we are facing in the world today — it is the people who are grounded in doing “good,” caring for the well-being of others and the world above their own needs. A huge part of this is simply voicing care for others and taking action.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take action? At what point did you personally decide that action needed to be taken?

Immediately at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, our wheels began turning to think of what we could do for our community and also the world that would be meaningful. As news stories began pouring out to the public, I noticed that policy was largely being decided on the fly, oftentimes without solid data because of the rapidly changing pandemic. It was difficult to grasp a clear view of what was really happening with no macro lens. We felt strongly that physicians and scientists on the frontlines needed a voice during this time, especially when it came to decision-making on patient treatment. We naturally felt that bringing our community together to gather these insights and publish our data on a weekly basis was the right approach, and so we got to work launching the Barometer.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

I have had many personal and professional heroes throughout my life, but I think above all during this time we all need to recognize two key groups: 1, the healthcare heroes caring for patients and researching new therapies and vaccines to help put a stop to the pandemic and 2, the leaders and everyday activists of the Black Lives Matter movement fighting for justice and equality to make systemic changes in society.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

Perhaps frightened is not the right word — but I think this pandemic shed light on many areas of healthcare that can and need to be improved from drug discovery and development to hospital and government preparedness, to protocol.

Amidst all of the darkness of this pandemic, I see a huge silver lining which is the rapid change it has instilled in healthcare — whether it be changing policies, regulatory reviews, or the rapid adoption of healthcare technology, healthcare is quickly entering the digital age through the lasting impact of COVID-19. For example, our HCP Sentiment Series looked at the adoption of telehealth over the past few months and it found that 90% of physicians worldwide are now treating patients remotely. As we look past the pandemic, this is one of many changes that may be lasting as healthcare continues to change.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain why?

Society has been faced with much uncertainty and fear during the pandemic. It has been inspiring to watch as people came together to collaborate, innovate, and react quickly to fight the disease and save as many lives as possible. Through our two series of surveys, we have seen clinical collaboration and support, and the impact of using global physician insights in the fight against the pandemic. It gives me great hope to see the compassion and willingness to work together across country lines, physician specialties, and more for the greater good — and the use of technology platforms to do so. Many companies have stepped up to help during this crisis — whether it was to support physicians, provide free services to hospitals and healthcare systems, or jump in to create tests and search for vaccines. It has been wonderful to see the importance of the private sector’s support, especially technology companies, during these times of need.

What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?

Mainly, I have been inspired by the way people from many different backgrounds and locations have come together to fight against COVID-19. Pharmaceutical companies combined forces with cutting edge health technology and science companies to rapidly develop tests and vaccines. Physicians and patients have been working to seek out the latest information and stay safe. I see a lot of hope — while there is a lot of work to do to optimize our healthcare system, this pandemic has shown the great potential there is with the power of people, collaboration, analysis, and action.

Our most recent Barometer study revealed that 88% of global physicians recommend that ALL their patients wear masks. If there’s any behavior I find “disappointing,” it’s when the public decides not to follow the advice of these trusted professionals. I hope everyone takes mask-wearing and social distancing seriously so we can slow the spread of this disease.

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

In many ways yes, it has — while we are constantly trying to evolve and grow as a company, this pandemic has reinforced many of the goals and “north star” we are working towards every day at Sermo. The company stays rooted in connecting physicians to strengthen their individual practice of medicine as well as the broader health system. COVID-19 has reinforced the importance of using technology as a vital platform to connect and support people, collaborating to fight complex problems, and collecting key insights for continuous education and adaptation of physicians, patients, and industry amidst a rapidly changing problem.

In times of crisis, it is critical that we come together and work collectively to create a solution. We think it’s incredibly important for everyone to have a voice, and to make sure that their voice is heard. And we can all play a role in that. That’s why our team at Sermo will continue to work to represent the voices of physicians and share our real-time learnings to better support those on the front lines.

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

Kirk: I would love to see this spirit of medical collaboration and support continue beyond the crisis. The pandemic has also been a forcing function to drive technology adoption and innovation across the healthcare industry — we should never lose this drive!

From a corporate perspective, I would also love to see the use of data like what we collect at Sermo to continue driving ongoing lifestyle changes that will promote a higher degree of health for all people rather than just for short-term crisis situations.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Kirk: From what I have seen, there are more and more young people searching for ways to make a difference in this world, which is inspiring. My advice to them is to be curious about the world, build a foundation of expertise, surround yourself with compassionate and intelligent people, work hard each day, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. It may feel overwhelming at times. If you work little by little each day, following your heart and training, you can make a big difference in the world. Not all “heroes” wear capes or have big flashy moments — the true heroes are the people finding small ways to make a meaningful impact on the people around them each day.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

The more time I spend in the healthcare industry and the world, I see it less of a movement and more of gradual evolution. Especially in times of crisis, we need to continue to adapt and grow to help the greatest number of people possible — whether patients or providers. Constantly trying to push the envelope is key in healthcare to slowly shift the industry in small, important ways. This is never truer in a time of crisis — relying on the foundation you have built, the compassion of others, and looking for ways to improve by stepping back and collaborating with peers are all essential.

From Sermo’s perspective, especially during the pandemic, we have tried to help amplify the voices of physicians on the frontlines who have unparalleled firsthand insights into the global crisis. These insights are crucial as a continuous feedback system for healthcare to continue to evolve. The “movement” comes from the physicians; we simply provide the platform for insights and knowledge sharing for doctors to create lasting, impactful change.

We cannot thank our Sermo members — and all of the healthcare professionals around the world — enough. Collectively, they form a powerful medical voice globally, and the impact is unparalleled.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? “He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)”

Given where we are right now in the midst of COVID I would forego breakfast with natural greats like Barack Obama, Emmanuel Macron, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg and instead have breakfast with what we at Sermo call ‘an everyday hero like Cameron Kyle-Sidell, MD. Dr. Sidell is an everyday ER physician in NY who took it upon himself during the early days of COVID in NY to ring the alarm bells via a YouTube video that we might be doing or even treating the wrong disease with all the early intubation of COVID patients. Standing up like this came at a great cost to himself as he swiftly got relieved of his duties for speaking out of line and suggesting current protocols for COVID were incorrect. He is a real-life hero in my view and his controversial whistle-blowing on early intubation may have helped saved thousands of lives in the US as it helped stir many hard conversations among COVID treaters around the country.

How can our readers follow you online?

Check us out on! I would also encourage anyone interested in learning more about Sermo to follow us on all of our social media accounts, including Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. You can also follow me on Twitter, @_PeterKirk, and on LinkedIn.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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