‘e-detailing’: The Future of Pharmaceutical Sales?

Pharmaceutical product detailing to doctors by Medical Representatives (MRs) is believed to fetch the single largest return on marketing investments by the pharmaceutical companies globally, as on date.

At the same time, the pharma players, across the world, are increasingly experiencing that the costs of product detailing by the MRs to the doctors are not now quite commensurate to the desired return in terms of financial results, despite bringing in many new skills and other productivity improvement measures on a regular basis.

Thus, to make such interaction between the MRs and the doctors more productive and cost efficient, increasingly the global pharmaceutical industry has been exploring various models and methods with numerous state-of-art digital Internet based applications. Some pharmaceutical companies, especially, from the western world, have already started putting such innovation into practice.

Waning productivity of traditional detailing:

This is quite apparent now that due to changing market dynamics and increasingly busy schedules of the doctors, the productivity of traditional product detailing is fast waning. As a result, pharmaceutical companies are encountering huge challenges in the process of generating prescription demand for their respective products by taking commensurate share of mind of the Physicians.

This is mainly because, the number of patients is also now fast increasing and the doctors are trying to see these large numbers of patients within their limited available time. As a result each patient is getting lesser doctors’ time, while the doctors are trying to provide optimal patient care in each patient visit. At the same time, other obligations of various kinds also overcrowd physicians’ time.

As a result, increasing number of MRs, which has almost double in the past decade, is now fiercely competing to get a share of lesser and lesser available time of the doctors. Added to this, increasing inflow of new doctors not being in line with the increasing inflow of patients is making the situation even worse.

As stated earlier, significant expenditure that the pharma companies have been incurring towards product detailing, many of them feel, is not resulting into desired top and bottom line growth for the organization, any more. Even good numbers of important specialist doctors do not seem to value this traditional MR product detailing process any longer, mainly due to immense time pressure on them and also due to their easy access to other modern product information gathering tools.

What is happening today:

Today, keeping the core concept of traditional detailing unchanged a few, especially large pharmaceutical companies in India, have introduced a number of digital interventions to eliminate some important manual processes that MRs used to follow earlier like, call planning, access to other relevant information electronically, instant reporting etc. 

Such incremental improvements in the traditional detailing model, though helpful to the MRs, do not seem to be just good enough to produce desired business results in today’s highly competitive environment. The time calls for radical technological interventions.

A new report on the trend: 

According to a new study of CMI Communication Media research report, about half of physicians restrict visits from MRs in one way or another.

It reported, just half of cancer specialists (oncologists) saying that they would interact about new products with MRs, while 47% of them indicated email as a preference.

Surveys found the oncologists being the most restrictive specialists, with only 19% allowing MRs without restrictions. On the other hand, 20% of them would not see MRs at all, with the 40% in the middle either requiring appointments or limiting visits to particular hours of the day or week.

‘e-Detailing’:

The well known consulting company Mckinsey & Company in a paper titled, ‘Making sense of e-detailing in Japan’s pharmaceutical sector’ has defined e-detailing as follows:

“e-detailing or electronic detailing refers to interacting with physicians virtually rather than physically. It often takes place through a company’s own website or through a physician portal coupled with email- driven promotions and attached explanatory videos offering up-to-date pharmaceutical product information.”

Thus, in ‘e-detailing’ Internet-based communications applications are used to provide customized services to the doctors, in many times to complement the activities of MRs.

‘e-detailing’ is now evolving as a modern technological innovation in the field of communication between MRs and doctors. It is intended to be highly customized, very interactive, more effective, quite flexible and at the same cost-efficient too. Live analytics that ‘e-detailing’ would provide instantly could be of immense use in the strategizing process of pharmaceutical marketing.

Cost effectiveness of ‘e-detailing’:

In the same paper, as mentioned above, to highlight the cost advantages of ‘e-detailing’, McKinsey & company, from its Japan experience, has reported as follows:

“While accurate, apples-to-apples data is hard to come by, we estimate each    e-detail costs between 500 and 750 Yen, depending on the scope 
of audience and the sophistication 
of content. An MR costs 7,000 Yen 
to 12,000 Yen, depending on sector, region, and hospital vs clinic The ROI (return on investment) for MR detail is in the range up to ~20x, versus ~4-6x for e-detail. In other words, the cost structure allows for sustained ROI
 for e-detailing—even when extending reach beyond the top prescribing quintiles of physicians.”

In  the Japanese context, Mckinsey & Consulting further states:

“Right now, e-detailing in Japan is more often used at the beginning of a product’s lifecycle (i.e. to win attention during product launches) or at the end (i.e. to sell established products). These are what we call ‘stay in the race’ practices; necessary, but not sufficient.”

Perceived advantages of ‘e-detailing’:

The traditional way of detailing through ‘Visual Aids’ may not be good enough today when the available time with the doctor has come down drastically.  Just providing, by and large, the usual ‘one size fits all’ types of data/information to the doctors is gradually proving to be not effective and efficient enough to generate expected outcome. There is a dire need for helping these busy doctors to get access to drug information they value and trust at a time of their need and convenience.

Thus, the process of medical detailing should be made highly flexible depending on whatever time is chosen by each doctor to satisfy his/her specific needs.

In such an environment ‘e-detailing’, as discussed above, would help creating customized, more impressive, self-guided by doctors and more focused presentations with significant reduction in the detailing cost/ product with improved productivity.

Moreover, ‘e-detailing’ would:

  • Make expensive printed promotional aids redundant
  • Eliminate time required and cost involved to deliver such material
  • Have the flexibility of change at any time
  • Ordering of just required samples online, eliminating wastage

Fast increasingly number of doctors using computers and the Internet for professional purposes, especially in the urban areas, would facilitate this process.

Key success factor:

Experts believe, besides developing an effective and user-friendly tool for e-detailing, the important success factor for such initiative by a pharmaceutical company would well depend on:

  • Well planned integration of ‘e-detailing’ into the Customer Relationship Management (CRM) strategy
  • Deep understanding of physician segments
  • Efficient application of ‘e-detailing’ to support marketing goals.

The challenges:

Though there are many benefits for ‘e-detailing’, it throws some challenges too, as follows:

  • Still many doctors continue to prefer the personal touch of the MRs in traditional detailing
  • Some doctors do give prescription support to a company based on their good relationship with the concerned MRs
  • Despite hectic schedule, many busy doctors continue to take time out to interact with such MRs.

Though such relationships do not develop with all MRs, this challenge needs to be effectively overcome to make ‘e-detailing’ successful wherever possible, probably by creating an optimal mix of traditional and ‘e-detailing’.

A recent initiative:

Recent media reports highlight one such innovation, among many others. Pfizer has reportedly come out with an interesting innovation in the field of medical detailing to the primary care doctors.  This new service of the company ‘Ask Pfizer’ claims that it can provide promotional product information to the doctors at a time convenient to them. Thus the ‘digital medical representatives’ of Pfizer leave the decision as to whether they want to see them and if so, when.

Ask Pfizer’, featuring in the website called ‘Pfizerline’ of the company says that the system is:

  • Simple
  • Flexible
  • Convenient
  • Calls can be arranged to suit the doctors’ busy practice schedule
  • Online meeting room provides a rich multi-media interaction where the doctor can see trained country-specific’ digital representative making product presentations and also discuss the relevant subjects with them.

Pfizer is advertising this new service called ‘digital detailing’ on the British Medical Journal (BMJ) website aiming, reportedly, at the UK doctors.

This initiative is indeed innovative, as it creates an environment of direct marketing in an indirect way with the help of simple Internet applications like Skype.

Conclusion:

Like many other industries, in the pharmaceutical industry too, across the world, communication of relevant information in an interesting way is of utmost importance. Here also. Indian pharmaceutical industry is no exception.

Since ages, the pharma players in India, in general, have been continuing to follow the traditional model of product detailing, hoping to generate more and more prescriptions from the doctors by deploying a larger and larger contingent of MRs, who highlight superiority of their respective products over competition.

Some may argue, there is nothing wrong in this model, but question would arise, is it still as productive as it used to be? This is mainly because, the doctors are now giving lesser and lesser time to the MRs.

Those pharmaceutical companies of the country who sincerely believe that innovative use of technology in the digital world of today may considerably help addressing this issue, at least in the urban areas, would possibly get a head start, as they delve into the future for business excellence in this area.

With e-detailing they will be able to provide an interesting communication option to the top-prescribers having a very busy schedule for top of mind recalls of their respective brands, leading hopefully to increase in prescription generation.

It is worth noting, though ‘e-detailing’ is emerging as an important innovation in the field of product detailing, there are still some questions that need to be answered. Some of these questions could be as follows:

  • Would many doctors prefer to schedule time for this purpose after a busy day’s schedule?
  • Would the information overload from other sources not keep them away from seeking more information through such a process?

Taking all these into consideration, the question that we need to answer:             Is ‘e-detailing’ the future of pharmaceutical sales, also in India?

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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