This definitely works. You should use the appropriate block type depending on what type of info you want to place in the side block. Look at the catalog.xml (<catalog_product_view> section) to see possible choices.
I was need to place the manufacturer attribute on the side block, so I used the following catalog.xml declaration:
<block type="catalog/product_view_attributes" name="product.right.manufacturer" template="catalog/product/view/rightcol.phtml" />
and yes I used $_product->getData(’manufacturer’) within the side block. Works perfectly.
If you need to display another info, not attributes, you should use another block type, one of the following:
<block type="catalog/product_view" ... />
<block type="catalog/product_view_description" ... />
<block type="catalog/product_view_additional" .../>
<block type="catalog/product_view_media" .../>
and so on. Look at the catalog.xml for details.