Custom marketing materials make it easier for physicians to educate their patients about the Food & Drug Administration (FDA)-approved uses and benefits of the drugs they prescribe. However, some physicians believe that those who distribute these materials—the pharma reps—provide little value beyond giving out free samples, branded “swag,” and educational materials. In fact, their efforts are often viewed as pure “marketing hype.”
In a recent study, Deloitte Consulting asked a controversial question regarding the 90,000 U.S.-based pharmaceutical company sales reps: “What would happen if they all went away?”
The Deloitte study revealed that 38.5 percent of physicians require pharma sales reps to schedule an appointment before visiting. Meanwhile, nearly 25 percent have “no see” policies (they will not meet with reps – ever). Deloitte’s conclusion, based on these findings: Pharma reps provide marketing hype, not value, so they should be replaced by “independent” third-party salespeople.
While I agree with the study’s basic premise that some pharma reps add little value when it comes to educating physicians and patients—and to be fair, their primary job is selling—there are still plenty of physicians who find it useful to consult with professional pharma representatives. (Why else would over 75 percent of them still agree to see reps, and 61.5 percent continue to do so without an appointment, according to the Deloitte study?)
There is no doubt the pharma sales model needs changing. For instance, the FDA and Department of Justice have uncovered egregious legal violations, as evidenced by the landmark $2.3 billion criminal and civil settlement with Pfizer. And pending healthcare finance reform will alter the pharma profit model, making it harder for pharma companies to support expensive direct sales forces. However, the solution is not a wholesale elimination of the pharma sales force. The authors of the Deloitte study admit as much, stating: “Even if the non-captive rep model is not the ultimate end state, pharma needs to take action now in order to become more customer-centric.”
Pharma sales organizations should start by asking physicians what they want and need reps to provide, and how their interactions with reps could be more valuable. (Deloitte asks: Are there better, faster, cheaper ways to distribute samples? Can reps provide physicians with improved in-service education on protocols and efficacy?) Pharma companies should also determine the optimal time to release scientific, educational, and promotional content based on physicians’ responses to this content—then have reps distribute this content accordingly.
There are also bigger questions to consider: When dealing with the protocols involved in an increasingly complex pharmacological environment, will physicians really trust the opinion and representations of a third party? Who trains, certifies, pays (and influences) this third-party? In the end, isn’t it in the best interest of patients for physicians to rely on pharma reps who directly represent the drug companies?
While it makes great headline, it would seem—to paraphrase Mark Twain—that rumors of the pharma sales rep’s death have been greatly exaggerated.