Drug Promotion Takes to the Web
AP Online - Dec. 04, 2007
WASHINGTON_Patients today are less likely to bump into drug sales
representatives at a doctor's office as pharmaceutical companies adopt
cheaper technologies and more discreet ways to pitch drugs.
The changes are partly in response to a backlash against overly
aggressive marketing of the past decade, when many executives believed
the company with the biggest sales force would have the highest sales.
From 1999 to 2001, U.S. drug companies expanded their sales staffs, on
average, by 42 percent, according to the most recent research available
Back then, many physicians dealt with half a dozen or more people from
each major drug company as ever-larger armies of sample-toting
salespeople were mobilized. But the marketing blitz took a toll on
"A lot of practices across the U.S. basically said 'we don't want to see
you anymore because it's too much of an interruption,'" said Dr. Dave
Switzer, a family doctor based in northern Virginia who gives
unannounced salespeople a minute of his time.
He may be on the generous side. Seventy-five percent of sales calls
these days don't involve a face-to-face meeting with a doctor, according
to research by Leerink Swann & Co. Industry executives acknowledge
increased demands on physician's time, including paperwork required by
However, the marketing shift goes beyond a time crunch. In recent years,
media companies have increasingly scrutinized how drug companies court
physicians, from handing out branded pens to funding lavish conferences
at exotic locations.
"Patients are watching, medical students are watching and it's just
become harder and harder to justify these interactions," said David
Kramer, chief executive of Digitas Health, a company that specializes in
online pharmaceutical marketing.
Perhaps the most important driver in the effort to improve selling
techniques is the bottom line. Revenues are shrinking industrywide as
many blockbuster drugs from the past decade lose patent protection.
Dwindling sales recently led the industry's biggest player, Pfizer Inc.,
to cut its U.S. sales force by 20 percent or about 2,500 salespeople.
Rivals such as AstraZeneca and Bristol-Myers Squibb have also reduced
U.S. sales staff in recent years.
"We've made sure we have fewer representatives calling on any one
physician and made those representatives more accountable for each of
their relationships," said David Snow, an AstraZeneca vice president.
"And the technology actually enhances that by giving them more
information and more ways to present it."
AstraZeneca and other companies are focusing on Web-based visits between
doctors and salespeople. The appointments are made for the evening or
weekends, and a sales representative gives a presentation through an
online video link or over the telephone while directing the physician to
Web pages. Executives say it is becoming one of their most effective
According to Merck & Co. Inc., the average online appointment with a
physician lasts 10 minutes, compared with 4 minutes for an in-person
Technology is changing how companies do sales calls in other ways.
Representatives used to carry pages of company studies and medical
journal articles. Using tablet PCs, sales people can present their
information faster and direct the doctor to company Web pages.
Meanwhile, the tablet PC automatically records information about what
was presented and how it was received and sends it back to the marketing
department. This feedback can be used to judge the quality of the
company's message _ and sometimes the skill of the person presenting it.
Consulting firm Exploria SPA says more than 70 percent of drug
salespeople carry a tablet PC even though some representatives complain
the devices allow managers to peer over their shoulders too much.
Industry executives say in-person selling will remain the core of their
sales strategy although the past two years have seen an increase in
online promotions that eliminate salespeople. According to one industry
survey, nearly half of physicians prefer to learn about new medications
through the Internet, instead of through a salesperson.
People that design these online promotions say doctors are simply
displaying the same consumer preferences that have made businesses like
Amazon.com and eBay so successful.
"I shop online, I consume information online and I don't have to wait
for the newspaper to hit the driveway," said Bruce Grant, an executive
with Digitas Health. "Doctors are just doing the same thing you and I
are as consumers: they're taking advantage of the full power and
convenience these new media give you."
So-called e-details include Web sites set up specifically for doctors
and video presentations sent via e-mail. Increasingly, e-details amount
to mini-movies, using high production values and medical experts, urging
doctors to prescribe the company's latest product.
"The traditional model that served us very well for many years is
broken," said Gary Pond, a marketing executive at Merck. "We're going to
have to evolve to a different way of doing business, and technology is
one tool to help get us there."