By Beth Kennedy.
With Big Pharma sales teams awash with iPads and 72% of US doctors now armed with smartphones for professional use, are we finally approaching the day when the rep is replaced by digital technology? And if so, is it a good idea?
The number of pharma sales reps industry has fallen by more than 25,000 employees since 2006. And for those who remain, it’s getting harder to see the doctor. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) Online points to a 2009 report, which revealed that 1 in 5 doctors would not meet with reps in a traditional office visit — decrying them as intrusive and irritating — and says about three-quarters of industry visits to US doctors’ offices fail to result in a face-to-face meeting.
In announcing plans to reduce its workforce by 16%, AstraZeneca is jumping on the digital marketing bandwagon with the introduction of AZ Touchpoints, a website offering ordering information, insurance coverage and answering doctor’s questions; Sanofi-Aventis’s www.ipractice.com and Merck & Co’s www.merckservices.com are similar services.
But as WSJ points out, the use of technology is not a complete alternative to a sales department. Systems can contract viruses and are at risk of being hacked. One of the biggest data breaches in history, the recent hacking of the Sony Playstation Network, left 77 million customers in the dark. GlaxoSmithKline’s (GSK) email database was also hacked earlier this year by an unauthorized third party. The hackers sent spam to consumers who had signed up to the GSK product website.
Where human staff can cost the company in vacation time and sick days, securing a qualified specialist to eradicate computer viruses or tighten up security systems can also be time-consuming and costly.
And not all pharma firms are replacing their reps with technology, WSJ reminds us. Danish drugmaker Novo Nordisk AS introduced a new iPad/iPhone app called Coags Uncomplicated to plug its drug NovoSeven, but left its US sales force alone. Eli Lilly has closed down its lillyconnect.com portal, the channel it established in 2002 for marketing its drugs to doctors.
The future clearly lies in using these new sales tools, but it seems it isn’t necessary or wise to cut thousands of rep jobs to make way for them. Instead, the sales people and their digital counterparts just need to be able to work together.