Treading Lightly – A New Approach for Pharma

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported on a dramatic change occurring in the pharmaceutical industry. The on-line article explored how many of the big pharma companies are changing their commercial model in response to the current economic and regulatory conditions. Most notably, drug reps are being encouraged to soften their sales pitches and re-position themselves as a trusted resource for the doctors they call upon. British drug giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) for example, has stopped evaluating salespeople based on the number of prescriptions written  Instead, they look at how well physicians rate their representatives. GSK, Merck and Lilly are also asking their representatives to switch from making forceful, tightly scripted sales pitches to acting more like a resource supporting physicians’ treatment. Companies hope to get a foot in the door by providing practical help, such as assistance educating patients about their diseases or navigating reimbursement. Why now?  Clearly, prescribers, who are under increasing pressure from health plans to curb costs, have less time for, and patience with, persistent sales representatives. Plus, the government has been cracking down on aggressive, and off-label marketing. For some, myself included, this is nothing new. Almost 20 years ago when I worked in pharma, I rarely “detailed” my products. Instead, I helped “my doctors” build websites for their own practices, helped to organize, and on occasions even moderate, their clinical meetings and assisted them with….well just about anything they wanted assistance with, be it product related or not. The strategy worked, sales grew and my competitors, even those with better products or prices were neutralized. Increasing physician satisfaction, it turns out, is a much better way to promote a pharmaceutical agent than simply telling them to write more prescriptions or what the benefits are,” says David Ricks, president of Lilly’s global business unit. Unfortunately, salespeople still can’t provide the one thing many doctors want above all – time!  Even though pharmaceutical companies are attempting to engage prescribers in a more pleasant way, they still don’t always get a positive reception because nothing is being done to solve the doctors’ time problem. The bottom line is that physicians need to fit more patients – not sales reps – into their workday. Although it’s estimated that pharma sales reps  pay 115 million visits to 340,000 doctors each year, 23% of doctors surveyed by market research firm SK&A in 2010 said they don’t see drug reps at all. Eli Lilly decided to adopt its new approach after watching launches of new drugs fail. One problem the company identified was a mismatch between what doctors expected based on sales pitches, and what the products delivered. Before the change in tactics, psychiatrist Carey Cottle, MD says he was more likely to write prescriptions for a competing antidepressant like Pfizer’s  Effexor over Cymbalta, because Lilly representatives had a “high-pressure, car sales-type approach, and it was just not appropriate.” Now, surveys of doctors show that 85% are satisfied with Lilly, up from the 60% before the company changed ways. And business is up too. Sales of Cymbalta were >$450 million higher during the first nine months of 2011, than during the same period in 2010. We’d love to hear what doctors and sales reps think about this.

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