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Wednesday, 10 April 2013 00:00

The Changing Role of Pharma Reps

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It's all about education - and not just reaching doctors

Twenty years ago, you could spot a pharmaceutical sales rep from 50 paces:  If you saw a good-looking 20-something with one of those briefcases on wheels heading into an office building, chances were good that they were a drug company rep looking to push their products to doctors.  Armed with flashy detail aids, plentiful supplies of samples, and an aggressive sales pitch, they were crucial to a drug's success.

In the past few years, however, things have changed:  Pharma reps can no longer come bearing expensive gifts; doctors are busier than ever and less inclined to give up patient time for sales reps; and with more information at their fingertips, physicians have less incentive to spend time with reps in order to learn about a particular product or drug.  In fact, 25% of doctors say they no longer see pharma reps in their offices, and almost as many are reluctant to take samples.

More importantly, many practices don't function the way they used to, thanks to doctor shortages and economic constraints.  These days, a single doctor may be supported bya  whole team of nurses, RNs, nurse practitioners, physician's assistants and other healthcare professionals - all of whom play a role in influencing the medication a patient receives.

What does this mean for the role of the pharma sales rep?

1.  They must be able to educate

Spending time with reps whose knowledge doesn't go beyond the detail aid or whose only goal is to sell more product just aren't a good use of a busy doctor's time - and aren't providing any better information than a doctor could find online, more conveniently.  In order to be effective, pharma reps have to be able to provide more in-depth, unbiased information.

2.  They must demonstrate they can add value

A rep who stops by only to 'push' products, without regard for the overall practice goals, patient needs, or market knowledge, simply isn't adding value to the practice.  Reps who can provide practical help, such as assistance with getting approvals from HMOs or educational opportunities for patients, will stand a better chance of getting through the door - and allowed to return.

3.  They must reach the support staff as well

In more and more practices, it's the RNs or other nursing staff who do the most patient counselling - they're the ones who get the questions from patients about treatment plans, medications, prescription alternatives, etc., and they're the ones providing recommendations and advice to the doctors, who don't always have the time to review all the options themselves.  Reps who hope to influence a doctor's prescribing behavior need to be prepared to spend time with the other people in the process.

4.  They must be perceived as unbiased

GlaxoSmithKline's recent $3 billion settlement of the "largest healthcare fraud in US history", based on the sometimes shady promotion of prescription drugs for unapproved uses, highlighted a growing concern among doctors, healthcare practitioners and patients about access to unbiased information.  Pharma reps need to acknowledge side effects, ongoing issues, and even the efficacy of competing products in order to be taken seriously.


So what does all of this mean for the pharmaceutical companies?

Well, many pharma companies are cutting back on the use of traditional sales reps.  They say they're too limited by legislation, they aren't able to gain access to doctors, and they can't impact sales the way they used to.

changing role of pharma sales reps beth banks cohn

However, I think that if the pharma companies rethought the way they trained, deployed and incented their reps - and thought in terms of 'support providers' rather than 'salespeople' - they might just find they had a highly effective team at their disposal.

Across most industries, the role of 'sales' has changed significantly over the past 10 years.  Now that consumers have more information about almost everything at their fingertips, they no longer appreciate hard-core sales pitches or salespeople who do more selling than listening.  Salespeople who provide honest answers, good advice and value-add follow-through do better - and build a better reputation for their organization - in the long run.

Big pharma is no different:  Companies who strive to fully educate their sales reps (and perhaps gave them a less sales-oriented name like 'consultants') about their products, encourage them to understand the larger issues at play in today's medical practices, and provide them with the ability to add value via educational materials, patient seminars or administrative advice, may find themselves not only with better-performing drugs but improving the image of pharmaceutical companies in general.

Of course, this requires a major shift in thinking - we're not going to do away with 30+ years of traditional pharma sales reps overnight.  But isn't that where change management can make a positive difference?


Read 24501 times Last modified on Thursday, 11 April 2013 02:17

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Beth Banks Cohn, PhD, founder and president of ADRA Change Architects, is dedicated to helping you and your organization reach your full business potential…
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