How to market to physicians

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Doctors are a powerful group of professionals-and not just for their medical knowledge. Especially on the pharmaceutical front, physicians wield enormous influence over the success of a prescription drug. As a result, they're constantly bombarded by marketing messages in all media, meetings with sales reps and the undeniable influence of direct-to-consumer advertising.

It's not surprising that recent studies show doctors distrust sales and marketing efforts. For example, BusinessEdge Solutions discovered in 2004 research that 75% of physicians are insulted by pharma companies' sales tactics, such as deep probing to determine why they choose certain drugs to prescribe.

"Moreover, 70% are frustrated by multiple sales calls and have made steps to limit or exclude those that call on them too frequently," said Patrick Mullen, BusinessEdge marketing director. "Even more, 90% say that high rep turnover undermines any trust they've built with them, and the same percentage believes that excessive marketing costs contribute to high prescription drug prices."

Detailing won't disappear

For all these reasons-plus the ongoing scrutiny of government and industry regulations-pharmaceutical sales and marketing is undergoing a major metamorphosis, said Wayne Dunlap, VP-marketing of agency MedPoint Communications. But that doesn't mean sales reps and "detailing," the industry term for a pharma-to-physician sales call, will disappear.

"Overall, we will see a continual decline in the number of `big pharma' sales representatives," Dunlap said. However, because there will be fewer of them, their role will likely grow in importance, he added.

"I think physicians-although they don't want to admit they rely on pharma-do rely on their reps for information that will help them make prescribing decisions," said Tara Olson, co-owner of AllPoints Research, a marketing research company. "What this means is the regulatory hurdles that encourage pharma to educate physicians-rather than do traditional marketing-actually tie into the opportunities pharma already has, and ensure that physicians will respond if presented with compelling information."

Bona fide, beneficial services

For physicians to welcome detailing visits, sales reps must provide bona fide, beneficial services, not just blatant sales pitches, said Sherrie Aycock, AllPoints Research co-owner. "They need to see themselves as providers of information, teaching tools to help the doctor speak with patients, and good data to help him or her make decisions."

Physicians on average only spend up to eight minutes with a sales rep who actually gets through to see them, said Andrew Weissberg, general manager of product development and interactive marketing for Advanstar Medical Economics Healthcare Communications. "Some 80% of sales reps don't get through at all," he added.

To overcome these challenges, pharma companies have to provide information beyond what sales reps can offer in a variety of formats-including Web, print, mobile devices, broadcast and phone calls-to cater to different physician needs, Aycock said.

"No doubt there is a growing need for e-detailing," Dunlap said. (E-detailing is any communication between pharma marketing or sales reps and doctors that happens electronically, especially on the Web.)

"While e-detailing is not a total replacement for face-to-face sales rep-to-physician interaction, it is filling the growing needs of busy clinicians and pharma companies alike," Dunlap said. "Many physicians find e-detailing less disruptive to office practice and like the flexibility in scheduling. Cost-savings, of course, are the greatest benefit to pharma companies."

Become a resource

Another major Web opportunity beyond e-detailing is for pharma companies to offer medical education resources online. "A recent JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association study showed that physicians are trending to online learning for the sake of convenience," said Tracy Doyle, CEO of Phoenix Group Holdings, a medical education company. "This is a big change because physicians historically have preferred live events."

Online education opportunities for pharma companies also include building "branded communities" in any given treatment area that let patients and physicians interact with each other. "It's a great public service for pharma companies to offer," said Rob Frankel, founder of, which builds the so-called branded communities.

Mobile marketing is another relatively new and increasingly effective vehicle for pharma marketing efforts. One of the most popular platforms is the Epocrates mobile network, which provides doctors with immediate answers, via their PDAs or smart phones, to clinical questions they encounter. About 50% of physicians use handheld devices in their practices, said Jeff Tangney, senior VP-sales & marketing and co-founder of Epocrates.

For pharma marketers, mobile devices offer the rare opportunity to provide information at the point of care. Epocrates gives healthcare companies the opportunity to sponsor its Epocrates DocAlerts, news alerts sent directly to physicians' PDAs. "These alerts must be clinical in nature and are reviewed by Epocrates' medical advisory board," Tangney said. "Of the more than 1 million messages sent each month, more than 15% result in a follow-up e-mail request," Tangney added. 

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