Declining MR Access to Doctors Prompts Increased Digital Engagement

The trigger point for a disruptive change in the pharma marketing playbook now seems to be not just on the horizon, but could soon move to a countdown stage, in India.

On Friday, September 16, 2016, at a seminar on the Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP) organized at Bengaluru, Sudhanshu Pant, Joint Secretary (Policy), Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP), India, reportedly said that the mandatory UCPMP is now in its last leg of clearance with the Union Government, after incorporating the inputs received from the pharma industry and other stakeholders.

He clearly articulated in his address, once a level playing field is created with mandatory UCPMP, both the pharma industry and the medical professionals will be restricted to offer and receive freebies, respectively, which is the in-thing today to generate prescriptions from the doctors.

“Our intent is that the new code should be followed in letter and spirit. It is not a draconian law, but penalties are stringent. We are enforcing fines. The violation of this code could also lead to suspension of product marketing,” the joint secretary further clarified.

Signals a forthcoming change:

Effective implementation of the mandatory UCPMP across India, could catalyze significant changes in the allegedly dubious pharmaceutical marketing process in India, revolving round ‘give and take’ of enticing ‘freebies’ to the prescribers. According to several reports, some of these practices are followed in the guise of ‘brand-reminders’, and several others fall under ‘events associated with Continuing Medical Education (CME), mostly arranged in various exotic places around the world, with associated hospitalities and equivalents. Besides, there exists a host of different kinds of ‘carrots for prescriptions’ of numerous types, forms and costs, as highlighted frequently by the national and international media.

Nevertheless, it is widely believed by many that Medical Representatives (MR) in India are having virtually no access barrier to meet the doctors, as a large number of both the receivers and the givers of the freebies have allegedly financial interest ingrained on meeting each other.

This scenario, I reckon, will change in India with the strict enforcement of mandatory UCPMP by the Government, curbing any possible misadventure by any stakeholder in the space of ethical pharma marketing practices that would impact the health interest of patients, directly.

Drawing a similar example:

One relevant example for India could be drawn from what happened in the United States (US) in this area, relatively recently. To contain wide-spread unethical pharma marketing practices in the US, President Obama administration enacted the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, effective August 1, 2013. This new law, that requires detailed disclosures from both the physicians and the pharma players on giving and accepting the freebies, limited the financial interest of the prescribers to meet with the MRs several times in a year, for face to face product detailing. Consequently, MR access to prescribers for the same started becoming increasingly more challenging.

A number of studies indicate, a large number of doctors have now started considering the delivery of a frequent barrage sales message an avoidable noise, when alternative highly user-friendly platforms are available to keep them up-to-date on various brands.

In the same way, as the new mandatory UCPMP will come into effect in India, it is quite likely that pharma companies operating in the country would start facing similar challenges with MRs visits, especially, to the important busy doctors and for similar reasons.

Digital channels are gaining strength:

With MRs access to physicians gradually declining, many pharmaceutical companies are trying to make the best use of a gamut of customized, innovative marketing approaches pivoted on various digital platforms. These initiatives are primarily to supplement effective engagement with the doctors to generate increasing prescription demand, and in a more user-friendly manner.

The latest study on trend:

There are many studies in this area, but I shall quote the latest one. According to a 2016 study of the global sales and marketing firm ZS Associates: “The number of digital and non-personal contacts that the pharmaceutical industry now has with physicians exceeded its number of sales rep visits to doctor offices.”

Analyzing the data from 681,000 health care providers who actually engage with pharmaceutical and biotech manufacturers across promotional channels, and more than 40,000 pharmaceutical sales representatives (MRs), the study reported, among others, the following:

  • 44 percent of physicians are “accessible” (that is, they met with more than 70 percent of sales reps who try to meet with them). This is a decline from 46 percent in 2015 and nearly 80 percent in 2008.
  • 38 percent of physicians restricted access (that is, they met with 31 to 70 percent of reps who try to meet with them).
  • 18 percent of physicians “severely” restricted access (that is, they meet with 30 percent or fewer reps who try to meet with them).
  • More than half (53 percent) of marketing outreach to physicians now takes place through “non-personal” promotion, such as email and mobile alerts, as well as direct mail and speaker programs.
  • The remainder of marketing to physicians (47 percent) still takes place through in-person interactions with sales reps (MRs).
  • Today’s physician estimates that he or she already spends 84 hours per year – about two full work weeks – interacting with pharma companies via digital and other non-personal marketing channels.
  • Around 74 percent of the physicians use their smartphones for professional purposes.

Another interesting point also emerges from the report. Despite the fact that non-personal communications, including digital, comprise 53 percent of marketing outreach most drug companies still allocate around 88 percent of their total sales and marketing budget to the sales force.

Increasing ‘online professional networks’ for doctors:

Keeping pace with this change several online professional networks for doctors are coming up. One such example is Doctors.net.uk. This is claimed to be the largest and most active online professional network for all UK doctors. Each day over 50,000 doctors make use of Doctors.net.uk to network with colleagues and view information.

This particular online facility provides the doctors with a range of free secure services including an email service, clinical forums, accredited education and medical news, which help them to keep up to date, and to easily maintain their Continuing Professional Development (CPD).

Some digital initiatives of pharma companies:

Here, I would quote just a couple of interesting examples out of several others:

For continuous online engagement with doctors:

In January 2013, the top global pharma major Pfizer launched an online digital platform for the doctors named ‘Pfizerline’. It provides access to the latest information on Pfizer products ‘when, where and how’ the doctors want it. As claimed by the company, ‘Pfizerline’ is regularly updated and forms part of the company’s ongoing commitment to keep the doctors informed about their products and services.

Some say that with ‘Pfizerline’, ‘Pfizer has begun using digital drug representatives to market medicines, leaving the decision as to whether they want to see them in doctors’ hands.’

For new product launch:

According to the Press Release published by PMLive, the first in the pharmaceutical industry ‘digital marketing only’ campaign was launched by Abbott for its Low Dose HRT brand, in November 2013.

The campaign reportedly reached to 9,000 doctors, 45 percent of the NHS population of obstetricians and gynecologists, and nearly 23 percent of GPs who engaged with Abbott’s Low Dose HRT brand via professional network Doctors.net.uk.

According to Abbott, as quoted in this report, the digital campaign, which included interactive case studies, clinical paper summaries and an ask the expert section, helped increase the brand’s market share, with a continuous month-on-month growth in sales in 2013.

I am quoting these two examples, just to illustrate the point that serious experimentations with digital marketing for serious business initiatives, such as, doctor engagement and product launch, have already commenced.

Conclusion:

For better physician engagement, while preparing for a likely future scenario in India, any effective brand marketing strategy on digital platforms would call for in-depth understanding of the target audience preferences on the specific information needs and marketing channels. This customized approach needs to be harnessed to deliver the right message, to the right customer, through right platforms, and at a time of preferred by each prescriber.

The ball game of pharma marketing is gradually but surely changing. Clear signals are now coming from various Governments to the pharma companies to jettison the widely perceived unethical practices of alluring the drug prescribers with ‘freebies’ of different kinds and values, against patients’ health interest.

Unless various third parties come-up just to camouflage continuation of the same unethical marketing practices of many companies, at a cost, getting unfettered MR access to busy prescribers is likely to be increasingly more challenging. Otherwise, effective enforcement of mandatory UCPMP is likely to usher-in this change in India, sooner, just as what the ‘Physician Payment Sunshine Act’ did in the US. The countdown for the new paradigm in the country is expected to commence soon, as reportedly articulated by the Joint Secretary (Policy) of the Department of Pharmaceuticals, recently.

However, there are a couple of points to ponder. It is also widely believed, even today, and also in the US that, while various digital platforms offer never before opportunity to effectively engage with ‘difficult to meet’ prescribers, their use should be prudent and well thought of. Any mass-scale and imprudent general switch to digital communications, is unlikely to fetch the best outcome, to meet with this evolving challenge of change, at least, in the foreseeable future.

At the same time, if pharma companies continue increasing investment in less expensive digital communications sans diligent homework for scaling up, the prescribers may feel so overwhelmed that they will start ignoring them, just as what’s happening with frequent MRs’ visits. Hence, for sustainable business excellence while confronting with forthcoming disruptive changes, the notes of the pharma marketing playbook need to be recomposed, afresh.

By: Tapan J. Ray 

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion. 

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